Monday, 19 June 2017
Competition and Consumer Amendment (Paper Bills and Statements) Bill 2017; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
It goes without saying that technology is a wonderful thing. Technology gives businesses the opportunity to operate with much greater efficiency; hopefully be more profitable and hopefully employ more people. Of course, technology gives consumers the opportunity to have much greater access to goods and services, and hopefully at a better price. So it is a good thing, but technology is no good for consumers in some situations. For example, it is no good if it limits choices. I am sure I can speak for many members when I say that it is not unusual for constituents to approach us and say they are dismayed by the lack of counter services, say, with government agencies—Centrelink, Medicare and so on. I know a particular problem in Tasmania in Hobart was getting rid of the counter service for seniors at the Centrelink office. The government and, indeed, many businesses are increasingly going online and getting rid of the face-to-face contact, which we have had in the past and which many people have grown accustomed to and rely on.
Of course, it is no good for consumers when technology allows them to hide misconduct. I am very pleased that this parliament has now taken some action to clamp down on the airlines in particular gouging on credit card fees. You see a cheap airfare and you go to book it and, all of a sudden, you are up for another $7 or $14 or $21 to use your credit card, even though you know full well that the cost to the airline is a tiny fraction of that. We still have the problem with hire car companies. You see an ad for $49 a day to hire a car and by the time you have finished your online booking, you seem to be spending near on $100 a day to hire a car.
Another problem with technology is the increasing practice of some companies, seemingly many companies these days, where they are only offering electronic statements or they are offering paper statements, but they are charging customers to get those paper statements. I have received many complaints about this increasingly commonplace practice and that is why I stand here today, and I think I speak for many of my colleagues in this place, saying that there are many of our constituents who are increasingly concerned with this practice—this practice of companies only offering electronic statements and not asking the consumer if they are happy with that and, if they do offer paper statements, charging those customers to get a copy of that paper statement.
This is a problem for all sorts of reasons not just that people do not like change, although that is relevant. For a start, some people do simply do not have the internet or email, or if they do have the internet it may not be reliable enough to ensure that they will always get a copy of that invoice, whether it be an electricity bill, a phone bill or a water bill or whatever. Regrettably, some people just cannot afford to have the internet or access to email. That might seem a remarkable proposition to us in here on the very big wages that we are on, but of course many of our constituents, many of my constituents, do not have a spare several dollars and have to go without things. One of the obvious things for them to go without is internet access. The point here is that this move towards electronic statements, this move towards charging for paper statements, is one of those things that has a disproportionate impact on low-income members of our community and on disadvantaged members of our community. Of course, there are other people who simply do not trust the transmission of personal information and financial information over the internet. They do not do it. They do not want to bank online and they do not want to get their invoices or their statements online, and that is fair enough. I can understand why some people would be very cautious about the internet and not wanting this information being transmitted over the internet.
An issue is that the cost of issuing a statement to a customer is a part of doing business. It should not be seen as an extra or a bit of a bonus that someone should have to pay for; it is the cost of doing business. Like other baseline costs of doing business, it should be socialised among all of the customers of the business. If some customers, quite rightly, still want to receive a paper statement, then they should get a paper statement and they should not have to pay a premium for that; it should be socialised across all of the customers of the business. As I say, it is part of the baseline cost of doing business. When a company gets in electricity bill, it does not divvy up the cost of the electricity bill to some of its customers, or it should not; it socialises that electricity bill across its entire customer base. It is the same with its water bill, its rates and the inputs into its production. A motor car company does not charge only some people for spark plugs; it is a cost of doing business.
That brings me to the purpose of this bill. It is a pretty straightforward bill and it is one of those bills that I hope would have the support of everyone in this House. In essence, the bill that I am tabling today would ensure that, when a supplier gives a bill, statement or proof of transaction to a customer, it is provided in paper form unless the customer consents to receive it electronically. Furthermore, the bill would prevent customers being charged a fee for receiving a paper bill, statement or proof of transaction in paper. It is pretty straightforward and it builds on the existing requirement in Consumer Law for customers to be given bill statements and proofs of transactions. This does not change that; it simply says that, if a company wants to move to electronic statements, it can only do so with the consent of the customer and, if the customer does not consent, that customer will continue to receive paper bills and that customer will not be charged any premium for receiving those paper bills.
The bill before the House allows for penalties to be imposed when suppliers do not comply with the law. As with other Consumer Law, the ACCC would be the body that would enforce compliance. It would only apply to goods and services sold after this bill comes into effect. I should say that I have developed this very much in response to the concerns of my constituents and the concerns of the member for Indi, who is very kindly seconding this bill. She is as concerned as me. I see my crossbench colleagues nodding, including the member for Kennedy and the member for Mayo. We have all received these sorts of complaints from our constituents, including the member for Dawson. It is all very straightforward. I would like to acknowledge the Keep Me Posted campaign, which has been very exercised about this matter. They have been lobbying many, if not all, members of this House.
This is one of the issues about which the government really needs to be responsive to the community. Just because this bill did not come from the government does not mean it should not be supported. We have a duty in here to be responsive to our community by hearing what their concerns are and trying to address those concerns to solve the problems. We have a duty to come in here and be collegiate. Is it is very unusual for the government to embrace and support a bill from the opposition and from the crossbench. It happens all too rarely. I think we are letting the community down with that because the community does expect us to be collegiate. When we see a problem we should fix it. When the solution comes from anyone in this House, if it is a good solution we should get behind it.
I call on the government in this case to be less beholden to the interests of business. Sure this move towards electronic statements and charging for paper bills does improve a business's bottom line, but it is not just about business. It is about getting the balance between the rights and needs of business and the rights and needs of consumers and members of the community. This is a good opportunity for the government to show that it is prepared to identify a problem, to work collegially, to not be beholden to business interests and to understand just as well that it needs to be responsive to members of the community. Again I would like to single out the member for Indi for seconding this bill and for her interest in this matter.