House debates

Monday, 29 May 2017


Communications Fees

11:25 am

Photo of Tim HammondTim Hammond (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) the rapid increase in the use of electronic communication technology in recent decades, including in commerce;

(b) that access to electronic communication technology differs between Australians, and is often related to income, age, education level and remoteness;

(c) that not all Australians have the skills and infrastructure to communicate effectively via electronic channels;

(d) that many businesses, including banks, telecommunications companies and utilities, charge consumers an extra fee to receive communications via post; and

(e) that often the fee charged by companies to receive communications by post are intended as a disincentive, and do not represent the actual cost incurred by the company; and

(2) calls on the Government to bring forward legislation that will give consumers the right to receive communications from companies by post for no extra fee.

No member of this House will be unfamiliar with the current state of affairs that exists where many companies now charge a fee to send an invoice, bill or statement by post in a circumstance where that customer, quite rightly, could have expected that invoice to arrive for free, as being all part of the service. Those on this side of the House are concerned that some of our nation's most vulnerable consumers—pensioners, low-income families and people with disabilities, who are least engaged in the digital and who have little meaningful choice about how they receive information—are now being asked to pay extra to receive information in a way that used to be free.

Information communication technology evolves very rapidly. The iPhone is only 10 years old; iPads have only been around for seven years. It feels like a new smart phone is released every month and its obsolescence is simply par for the course. Discmans, MiniDisc players, Walkmans, CDs, DVDs, good old-fashioned tapes all went out of fashion years ago. Now, even iTunes-style digital downloading has been displaced in favour of content streaming services like Spotify or Netflix. I do not know how many honourable members still keep a fax machine in their electorate offices. When I entered the workforce, I still remember, the fax machine was an essential piece of office kit. It got a daily workout, with the thermal paper rolling off the fax machine and under the desk. But these days, the fax machine that still sits proudly in the electorate office is very silent and is growing cobwebs by the day.

All of this technical evolution leaves people behind. Those left behind are often, very sadly, defined by age, income level, educational attainment and remoteness. Those who left the workforce before the widespread adoption of modern ICT infrastructure and those whose employment did not involve interfacing with technology are, typically, lower-paid, lower-skilled manual workers. They are families with low incomes that do not have the money to spend on ICT infrastructure for their personal use. For people with intellectual or other disabilities, it can be difficult for them to become accustomed to engaging meaningfully in the digital world. They are, also, citizens in remote communities, including Indigenous communities, who do not have ready access to digitally connected consumer goods or reliable internet services. For these people, this digital divide means so much more than simply missing out on the most recent season of House of Cards or Game of Thrones. It actually means having to pay extra to receive information, including statutorily mandated information, from utilities, financial service providers, telcos and other companies. It means paying extra to receive information that they can barely afford to pay for.

The idea is that it saves money for a corporate to email a document, so they seek to incentivise consumers to elect to receive documents electronically. This can take several forms. Some companies charge a fee to receive documents through the post—invariably, a higher fee than the actual cost of posting the document. Some companies create incentives to electing electronic communication, such as discounts and special offers. Some companies have special discount pricing structures, one of the criteria of which includes only having the option of receiving communications electronically. The obvious problem to all of this is that it leaves those vulnerable consumers on the wrong side of the digital divide with, simply, higher bills to pay. The cost of those bills all adds up.

We have reached a stage where those more vulnerable in our community are now having to pay precious dollars that they can ill afford to spend on receiving statements in the mail that, quite rightly, they should reasonably expect to receive as they previously did—that is, is free of charge. Quite frankly, the current state of affairs is misleading. At the point of sale, consumers are not informed of the entire cost of the service that is being provided to them, and it is also disproportionate. While companies charge an average of $2.50 to send documents by post, the average cost of doing so, including printing, staffing and postage, is somewhere between 94c and $1.11. Whilst some companies have exemption programs around the fee for paper billing, the process of applying for those is rarely communicated to consumers.

What is most concerning is that this sets a very dangerous precedent. Only a legislative solution can fix this problem. Only by enshrining in law a citizen's right to receive communications from a company by post for no extra fee can we deliver justice to vulnerable consumers and ensure that no-one is left behind. I commend the motion.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

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

I second this motion and reserve my right to speak.

11:31 am

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to thank the member for Perth for that stroll down nostalgia lane and his discussions about fax machines. I can beat that: I still remember a time of telex machines and a time when you had to ring the operator to make an international call. Also, I would advise the member for Perth to update his viewing lists on Netflix from such violent films like House of Cards and Game of Thronesmaybe a good rom-com would help him get in touch with his feminine side!

As the member for Perth points out, the advancements in electronic communications have fundamentally shifted the way in which we communicate. Eighty-four per cent of Australians own smartphones. Between reading the news on Facebook, uploading our food and travel snaps on Instagram, and group chatting on WhatsApp, that is 16 million people who have seen their ability to communicate become faster, cheaper and continuously available. Money can be transferred with quick swipe of one's fingerprint, and medical information can be saved in an app for emergency services. We can argue the merits of giving teens access to an app that automatically deletes the content of messages once they have been received or of our stress levels rising from an inability to disconnect from our work lives when we should be focusing on our families. But, overwhelmingly, I believe these advancements have been of great benefit to us. Never before has information been so readily available to so many people. Never before has consumer choice been greater. I recognise, however, that these advancements have not benefited all equally. Our world is changing at an increasingly rapid rate, which can leave some people behind. Older Australians, who have not grown up with a computer or with the internet, let alone a smartphone, can be forgotten.

When it comes to handling our affairs, paying our bills and generally interacting with businesses, competition in the market is what gives us as consumers the choice to decide which company we buy from, whose product is better, whose customer service is better and who has the best payment conditions. Companies that used to send paper bills to their customers now give them the option to receive them via email, a change that many of us would welcome. It is quicker, more convenient, saves paper and is often cheaper. This change can be frustrating for some Australians—those who live in remote areas and do not have ready access to the internet, or the older among us who do not use a computer but want to keep handling their affairs themselves. Receiving a bill that tracks our consumption and being able to pay that bill are part of the essential services we purchase. It is our duty as a community to make sure that these consumers are allowed to conduct their interactions with businesses, and especially essential services, without being penalised.

The Minister for Small Business, the member for Riverina, has responsibility for consumer affairs in this place. As such, he met with the Keep Me Posted organisation a number of times to discuss how to address their concerns around the availability and cost of paper billing. While some of the issues may be covered by existing provisions of the Australian Consumer Law, the concerns raised must be taken seriously. The Minister for Small Business has informed me that he has asked the Treasury to look into these issues. As we speak, Treasury is reviewing how current laws, like Australian Consumer Law and the Electronic Transaction Regulations, are operating. They will report back to him soon on the extent of the problem, what improvements can be made and whether additional specific legislation is ultimately required.

Many of the Australians we are talking about are elderly and vulnerable. Money is tight, and they may not have the capacity to pay additional fees for numerous paper bills, as the member for Perth pointed out. It is important for businesses that make a commercial decision to change processing and postage fees for paper bills to make sure that this change is a true reflection of the cost borne by that business and not an inflated fee or serving as a deterrent. I am pleased to note that many businesses, particularly those that provide essential services, already provide exemptions for individuals who cannot access bills digitally or who cannot afford to pay an additional fee. Whether or not these exemptions are readily accessible or promoted to customers is something that the Minster for Small Business will look into as part of his consideration of this issue. I encourage all businesses to follow this lead and consider the needs and rights of those consumers who have no access to the internet and who rely on receiving bills in paper form. Consumers and everyday Australians who feel cost of living pressures every day are and always will be the key focus of this Liberal government.

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.

11:41 am

Photo of Ann SudmalisAnn Sudmalis (Gilmore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The week between sitting dates was a busy time for me, catching up with people living in the electorate and learning of the issues that are causing their grief. This very problem—digital change—was discussed with great emotion.

I believe that electronic technology can be a massive gain for our children—for their education and the overall future of our nation. However, the corporate push by electricity suppliers, telephone billers, other bodies and, now, the banks to charge around $2.75 for the supply of a paper account is problematic and disappointing. What on earth are they thinking? Who are the people most likely to be negatively impacted by this ridiculous, money-grabbing activity? We know: it is the older sector of our community in particular.

Let me read a letter from one of my constituents, Marlene Miller. Parts of the letter are underlined in red and written in capitals, with other parts written in red ink:

Dear Ann,

I'm writing to you with my concerns—

and many of these are health ones at first—

My husband, Thomas, and I are on a full aged pension. (We are grateful and thankful for this). However, as we are ageing, our health problems are increasing. TOM is NOW 77 years old. In the past 7 yrs, he has had "BOWEL CANCER", & recently "PROSTATE CANCER. I have recently been diagnosed with "severe OSTEOPOROSIS".

She is 74, but she has the osteoporosis effect of an 89-year-old:

I could end up in a Nursing Home

And then she goes on about how she may be replacing her hip. During Tom's recovery from his prostate operation he fell. She had to lift him and now she has additional problems. But the most important point she brings to me in the letter is:





Well, I am not sure that that is the case. They have always worked very hard:


She challenged the body corporate about this extra fee. I have two letters here which she sent on. One says:

As an example a DEFT levy notice with $100.00 payable, when scanned by Australia Post, will read as $102.75 owing in the cashier's system. Once paid, $100.00 that will be allocated by your Strata Manager to your lot and $2.75 will be retained by Australia Post.

Australia Post denies the fact that it is actually putting on the additional levy. So just who is responsible for this? It is time we tried to find out. She also says that she is very happy to be living in Kiama, but she is finding it difficult.

I worked hard to have the pensioner concession card reinstated for those self-funded retirees who, because of their income level, lost their card on 1 January this year. Some of the ministers have actually said I was possibly too tenacious or too annoying. However, I am proud to let the more than 92,000 affected Australians, more than 3,000 of whom live in Gilmore, know that they will be getting their pensioner concession card back in October this year. I will follow up on these unfair paper charges put on by banks, utility corporates and other corporations with exactly the same tenacity I put forward in that case.

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.

11:50 am

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is almost impossible to rise to this notion without recognising the abject foolishness of what it seeks to achieve. Let's go through the different sections of the motion. Part 1 notes:

… the rapid increase in the use of electronic communication technology in recent decades, including in commerce …

I give that a tick. Clause 1(b) says:

… that access to electronic communication technology differs between Australians, and is often related to income, age, education level and remoteness …

That is true. That is also a tick. Then it says:

… that not all Australians have the skills and infrastructure to communicate effectively by electronic channels …

That is a sensible, logical, reasonable observation. Clause 1(d) says:

… That many businesses, including banks, telecommunications companies and utilities, charge consumers an extra fee to receive communications via post …

That is a tick. That is a logical statement of reason and rationality and observation of the world. Then you go on to matter 1(e):

… Often the fee charged by companies to receive communications by post are intended as a disincentive, and do not represent the actual costs incurred by the company …

I have to say that there is a very big question mark there. The reality is that it is definitely true that some institutional service providers like to send things electronically. Why? It is actually pretty bloody obvious. They like to send things electronically—

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think you made a simple mistake. We will have to refer to the Hansard.

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Whatever it is I said, I am happy to withdraw it.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think you should withdraw.

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw unreservedly, for the sake of clarity. It is pretty obvious—

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Public ramblings are not acceptable within the parliamentary process of speaking.

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think I understand what you are saying, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will continue. I have withdrawn. Is that satisfactory to you?

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is pretty obvious why that is the case. It is because it is cheap, with very little cost, quick—meaning responsive—efficient. As a consequence they do prefer that. But if you require things by traditional means, by post, there is a cost. There is a thing called Australia Post. If you go to the post office—I am not sure if any of the members opposite have done that recently—there is a cost of sending a piece of mail. You also have things like the paper that you print on. There is printer ink and time, energy and resources in folding and processing. All of that costs money. In fact, with the price of a standard letter being about $1 and the previous speaker talking about the cost of sending something being about $1.30 once you factor in all the other costs, which is roughly what agencies use—yes, there is a cost.

Ms Keay interjecting

To those opposite who are interrupting—I have not finished. Then you go on to clause 2 of the motion:

… calls on the Government to bring forward legislation that will give consumers the right to receive communications from companies by post for no extra fee.

What you are saying is that they should not be charged. I understand why you might make that argument, though it does not actually reflect the cost, but it just means the cost has to be reflected elsewhere. Because there is a cost. I just went through the very logical process by which a cost is calculated. That is not to say that I prefer that or disagree with that; it is just a statement of fact. It is a statement of reality about the world that we live in. Online is effectively free, minus the cost of staff time, which is sometimes required for the automation of the systems. But once you fractionalise that across thousands, if not millions, of transactions, the cost per distribution is minimal. Something in the post is not cost free or anywhere near the equivalent. Yes, you can negotiate for a reduction of price in bulk-purchased mailing rates, but there will be a cost, which will be fractionalised across various bits of mail to include staff and labour time and everything else.

So we need to recognise that there is a reality that does not accord with the motion that has been put before us—and that is (1)(e) and (2) of the motion. The reality is that we know there is already a method of regulation on bank fees and charges and the costs in telecommunications companies. Members opposite may not like to acknowledge that, but it exists. It is called the marketplace. People choose to go between different banks. To put my own perspective, I have multiple accounts with different banks. Before anybody gets hysterical about it, they are all disclosed on the register. As a consequence, you make decisions based on messaging and signals. Only a few moments ago, I got this annoying phone call from an energy company that wants me to shift over. One of their key messagings is that there are reductions in the penalty and rates associated with switching over. The market regulates. This motion is a waste of time.

11:55 am

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this motion moved by the member for Perth. The Nick Xenophon Team have been strong supporters of the Keep Me Posted campaign right from its inception. Senator Xenophon sought to introduce legislation into the Senate in April last year to protect consumers against unfair fees for paper bills and statements. This move would have brought Australia in line with many European countries, Canada and some of the American states, particularly Pennsylvania and New York. Unlike Australia, those other countries and those American states have been quick to tackle this issue.

Being charged for paper bills and statements is a particular challenge for older Australians and for rural and regional Australians. I can understand if you are in the middle of somewhere affluent or you are a young person and good with computers that you would not think that this is an issue, but if you are an older Australian this is a big issue and it has been raised with me by many constituents. I think we are forgetting the digital divide, as many of us move to phones where we have a computer in our hand. There are many Australians—in fact, 3.5 million Australians—who do not have internet access, who do not have computer skills; not all of us are digital natives. For many people it is incredibly frightening to think that they would be receiving their bills online. The fact that we have some of our wealthiest companies in Australia demanding that older Australians, Indigenous Australians and people with a disability—those who are most likely to be susceptible to being charged for paper bills—pay to receive their bills is just astounding. Let me just reel off some of them: Citibank charges $2 per statement; Macquarie Bank, $2.50; and Suncorp Bank, $3 per statement. It does not cost that much to put a postage stamp on a bill. Telstra charges $2.20; Energy Australia, $1.69; and AGL, $1.75. I think many of these companies should be doing the right thing. They should realise that not everybody is online, not everybody has a computer and not everybody is able to determine what is a scam email and what is a real email and that some people still like to receive their bills in the mail. The average Australian household receives between seven and eight invoices per month, with an average cost of $2.20 per bill. This equates to $180 extra per annum for the privilege of getting your bill in the mail for services that you are paying for. That is $180. If you are on a pension, if you are on a very limited income, you need to make every dollar count. I think it is extraordinary that this parliament is not doing more to protect our most vulnerable Australians—as I said, people who are disabled or living in a low income household. We have to remember that just 57 per cent of households with an income of less than $40,000 have access to the internet. So what we are doing and what companies in Australia are doing is penalising those who can least afford it.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.