House debates

Monday, 29 May 2017


Communications Fees

11:36 am

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Today I rise in support of this very worthy motion put forward by the shadow minister for consumer affairs and my good friend, the member for Perth, calling for legislation to protect consumers from being forced to pay additional fees to receive paper statements. For many millions of Australians the ways in which technology has entered our lives has made us more productive at work and at play, and more connected than ever, and many Australian now run their lives online. However, as easy as it is to get swept up in discovering what technology can do, it is important to not forget those who cannot share in these great technological benefits. Indeed, it is because of the pervasive nature of electronic communications in our everyday lives that we must be vigilant to watch for areas where it may either be misused or has disadvantaged members of our community.

We are becoming a nation of digital have and have-nots. There is a digital divide that we must be present to. In particular, where government moves access to it services online and diminishes access by more traditional means—not to mention the downgrading of Australia Post timeliness—it has an obligation to ensure access to those who cannot get online as well as to ensure online access is available to as many people as possible. This is a huge problem, not just in the country or remote areas but also within 20 kilometres of capital cities. Many parts of Burt cannot even get ADSL, now only a minimum standard, and some areas, like Thornlie, are also in wireless internet black spots. Worse, they are not even on the NBN rollout plan until at least 2019. Even then, they will still be afflicted by the government's 'fraudband' NBN. So we need to protect those without digital access.

Alas, as with many technological advances, the efficiencies or cost savings they allow for some come as a disadvantage to others. More and more companies, such as banks, electricity providers and telcos, are forcing their customers to adopt paperless bills, pushing customers—often without notice—into only receiving these pieces of very important correspondence electronically and only allowing hard-copy access for a not insignificant fee. The real problem is that these fees disproportionally affect our most vulnerable, because they unfairly target Australians without the skills or infrastructure to communicate effectively by electronic channels.

Often those without internet access are also those suffering from other forms of social disadvantage. We know that these groups tend to be people who are older, have lower literacy skills or might be more disadvantaged in other ways. We have studies that show that internet access decreases dramatically for older Australians, Australians facing financial difficulty or unemployment, new migrants and people speaking English as a second language. For those without internet access at home, cost and a lack of competence going online are listed as key barriers. For example, some of the most frequent users of internet terminals at the Seville Grove public library in my electric of Burt are jobseekers with no internet access available to them at home. Their opportunity to search for work is restricted to a time that they can get online at the library. It is condescending in the least to expect thousands of Australian households to conduct their financial affairs at public libraries. Coupled with this, the fees charged by companies to receive these communications by post do not represent the actual costs incurred by the company—they are instead much more.

Just last week, one of my constituents contacted me about this very issue. Mrs O'Grady wrote of her disgust at Bankwest charging her $1.25 to receive paper statements on her account. As she and her 83-year-old husband have two accounts, that is $2.50 a month just to receive a copy of their own transaction information. Mrs O'Grady's case is far from isolated: as her husband is not computer literate, e-statements are completely useless to them and to retain a service that they have received from their bank for many years they are now slugged a fee.

Australians like Mrs O'Grady should not be unfairly penalised. It should be the right of every Australian consumer to determine how their bank or utility company and other service providers communicate with them. I applaud the work of Keep Me Posted Australia, a campaign advocating every Australian's right to choose, free of charge, how they receive important financial information. KMP is a partnership of interested groups, charities, political representatives and businesses that represent Australians who are disadvantaged by a lack of choice or simply do not agree with the status quo. The government should introduce legislation that will protect a consumer's right to choose how they communicate with government and commerce—especially essential services like banks and utilities—and end the financial persecution of those in our community who choose to receive communications from companies by post for no extra fee.

As more and more Australians are online, the disadvantage of being offline grows. We cannot and should not forget those who are disadvantaged by being disconnected.


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