House debates

Monday, 29 May 2017


Communications Fees

11:45 am

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

In my capacity as shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity and defence I am more than aware of the speed at which information and communication technology evolves. I am also more than aware that the rapid pace of change brings with it a risk that some people will subsequently unfortunately be left behind. So I thank the member for Perth for bringing forward this motion, drawing attention to this very important issue of the digital divide of the haves and have-nots that is occurring right across Australia as I speak. This digital divide is a significant issue and it is something we need to be mindful of. The previous member mentioned the fact that 94 per cent of us are on smart phones. That might well be true, but from my own experience of people in my electorate who are still manually going down to the post office to pay their bills with their chequebooks, clutching their bills in their hand, there is a different reality for a large proportion of Australians out there. That is why I commend the member for Perth for bringing this to our attention.

Whilst many of us enjoy the ease of transacting online—purchasing groceries, paying bills or monitoring our utility usage in real time—we do forget that there are also just as many people who do not have access to the same level of digital technologies. Many of these people may have left the workforce before the widespread introduction of modern ICT infrastructure, particularly the portable range. They may have had the types of jobs that did not require the use of these sorts of technologies. Or, as we heard from the previous member, they may live in remote communities where access to reliable internet services is limited. Whilst the experiences of these people are different, there is one thing they all have in common: they are paying extra to receive information from their utility companies, their financial services and their telecommunications providers. Why do they pay extra? They pay extra because they want or need—in many cases there is a need here; let's not forget that—to receive an invoice, bill or statement on paper by post.

Many service providers are required under industry codes or statutory guidelines to provide certain information to their customers. Now they are asking their customers to pay to receive that. Companies claim that sending information online saves them money, so they apply a fee to paper documents to create an incentive for people to change their behaviour—to move from paper to online documents. They are doing this in a number of ways. Some companies are charging a fee to receive a document in the post. The fee is generally more than the actual cost of posting a document—anywhere between $1.30 to $5, with the average being $2.50. Why it is so expensive I do not know. Other companies use discounts or special offers only available online to create the incentive for customers to move to email. There are also examples where companies use special discount pricing structures, where a cheaper price is offered if a customer chooses to receive all of their communications electronically.

While companies try to justify the additional charge, what it really means is that at the end of the day there is an extra bill to be paid by the consumer. The consumer wears the cost. These extra bills add up, placing a financial burden on those who, in my view, can least afford it. I am thinking here about my mum, who is on the full pension. I am thinking here of those women and men I see down at the Australia Post outlet at Deakin with their chequebooks and bills in their hands. In many cases, these are not wealthy people.

There is no evidence that paper communication adds a significant cost to business or that the charges applied are directly related to cost recovery. I know there are many consumers across Canberra who are sick of what they are seeing: companies double-dipping and customers being billed for information they are entitled to receive. This is what we forget: they are entitled to receive their bill in the post on a piece of paper. Many people in my community have participated in the Keep Me Posted campaign, which is advocating for no penalties to apply to their preferred way of receiving transactional communication. The campaign highlights a number of areas of anticonsumer behaviour and, in particular, considers paper billing fees as being thin end of the wedge. I agree with that. This is the thin end of the wedge. Where will this stop? This should not be the burden of the citizen. It is the job of these companies to provide these bills, if required, on paper in the post. A simple change in legislation to enshrine the right to receive communication from a company by post at no extra fee or charge is really important to protect the rights of consumers.


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