House debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2024


Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Consumer Safeguards and Other Measures) Bill 2023; Second Reading

4:19 pm

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Consumer Safeguards and Other Measures) Bill. This is a bill that sits within the regime of telecommunications legislation in Australia, which is a very important part of law in Australia because today telecommunications has such broad reach—through our phones, through our internet connected devices—and the powers and abilities of the federal government to get involved in this area of the lives of Australians is very, very high indeed.

This bill is part of a concerning family of legislation that has been put forward by this minister, the Minister for Communications, within this realm of telecommunications law—none more concerning than the extraordinary and historically remarkable, and not in a good way, bill that was put forward in relation to misinformation. Last year, the minister released an exposure draft of telecommunications legislation that would seek to give the regulator power to reach into the operations of digital platforms and make assessments about misinformation. The huge issue is once the government is defining what misinformation is in a democracy, you are on very shaky ground indeed.

When the minister released that exposure draft, she said: 'This is all about ACMA. It's all about the regulator.' But what we learned, through a freedom of information application just before Christmas, is that the minister, under that exposure draft, in fact has the power to personally order an investigation into allegations of misinformation into Australians and into digital platforms. It's there in black-and-white in a letter that the minister wrote to the Prime Minister but did not release, and the Prime Minister's delegate, the assistant minister, wrote back and said: 'Great idea! Let's do it. Let's give the minister the power to personally order investigations into allegations of misinformation.' In a democracy, of which we are one of the world's very greatest, that is an extraordinary thing to do. The minister had to withdraw that legislation because it was so appalling and because of the backlash from pretty much every section of Australian society. We are told that it will be coming back before this parliament in the not-to-distant future, and I expect we will see a titanic battle when that does occur.

That's just one of the important areas of telecommunications legislation that's being debated before this parliament and in this chamber. It's an extraordinary piece of legislation. Despite a lack of legislation in telecommunications, this minister ignored—in fact, worse than ignored; explicitly decided to go against the very clear recommendation of the highly respected eSafety Commissioner to implement a system for age assurance technology online. What would that do? It would help to keep Australian kids safe from the most appalling and dangerous online content. If a digital platform can just say, 'We didn't know how old that person was, sorry; Australian kids were exposed all this horrendous content, but we didn't know how old they were so it's not our fault,' then it's very convenient for the digital platform.

What the eSafety Commissioner has said is we should trial a system of age assurance technology, a similar concept age verification, where we say, 'If you are going to be providing content like pornography or other content that is potentially dangerous to children, you need to verify age and you need to ensure you're not providing this to kids.' What could be more sensible than that? What could be more unifying than that? Frankly, what Australian would say that was a bad idea? Well, I know one Australian who thinks it's a bad idea, and that's the Minister for Communications. Despite the very clear recommendation from the highly respected eSafety Commissioner, this Minister for Communications said, 'No, I don't want to do that. Let's leave it to the industry.' But what's the industry we're actually talking about here? It's the pornography industry. So, whilst Australia's leading child safety experts came out and condemned this decision of the government, do you know who welcomed it? The Eros Foundation—representing, as they do, the pornography industry—welcomed it. Great. Well done, Minister Rowland. So you've got 50 leading child safety and women's safety experts on one side and the Eros Foundation on the other, and the minister says, 'No, I don't want to go with those child safety or women's safety experts, I don't want to support Grace Tame of the Grace Tame Foundation, I don't want to support Chanel Contos of Teach Us Consent and I don't want to support Bravehearts or the Daniel Morcombe Foundation or the extraordinary array of experts who spoke out on this issue.' The minister said, 'No, I'm not going to do that.'

The coalition, in this very chamber late last year, moved a suspension of standing orders to make the minister do that, because the minister was refusing to do that. The vehicle through which we can change the conduct of ministers when they behave in this way is, ultimately, this chamber. So we brought legislation to this chamber to say, 'No, Minister, you must conduct this trial. You don't want to do it—we're clear on that—but you've got to do it because the chamber's going to tell you to do it because we should be backing the eSafety Commissioner and backing the safety of the children of Australia.' This legislation was widely supported in the parliament, including, from memory, by all of the independent members of parliament and the coalition. But every single member of the government voted against it. I suspect that many members of the government, if they'd had an opportunity to reflect on what it was they were voting against, would have had real concerns with the very unfortunate position that this minister had put them in, which is an unfortunate reflection on the priorities and the conduct of this minister.

We're also seeing another very important issue in telecommunications legislation. AI has become something of a buzzword and a bit of a cliche in political debate, but the challenges around AI are very real—both in a positive sense in relation to the incredible opportunities that AI can create but also in relation to the risks. The concerns about potential malevolent uses of AI are legitimate concerns and serious issues and they need to be considered very carefully. If you are ultimately going to say, 'We need to take some action to defend against those worst-case scenarios in AI,' the way you do that is, I think inevitably, through some form of legislation or regulation in the telecommunications and internet space.

However, for reasons that are entirely unclear, the government has not made the Minister for Communications the minister responsible for AI. So we have this very odd situation where what is quite clearly the biggest long-run challenge—both in a positive sense and in terms of the risk that faces us in relation to the development of technology and the telecommunications sector in Australia—is around AI, but the minister who is responsible for the regulation of this area is not actually involved in leading the government's response. The minister is reduced to a supporting role with lots of other ministers, which doesn't make any sense at all. So there are a lot of concerns about what is going on in this portfolio, and particularly with these issues around telecommunications.

From the government's perspective, the most significant entity when it comes to telecommunications is the NBN. It's a hugely significant entity. And what we're seeing under the watch of this minister are some very concerning trends with the NBN. This is important.

In 2023, for the first time in its history, excluding new developments at new greenfields sites—where, of course, the NBN customer numbers will always grow—the NBN lost 43,000 customers. Across what they call brownfields, across satellite, the NBN lost 43,000 customers. That's on a net basis. And the rate of loss is increasing. In the five weeks to 1 February, we saw the NBN, outside of greenfields, lose another 5½ thousand customers. In fact, in those five weeks, from its satellite business, the NBN lost two per cent of its entire customer base in one month. Imagine that. There are some on this side of the chamber—I'm standing next to one right now—who have experience in actually running a business. Imagine if you lost two per cent of your customers in one month—big problems. The NBN's satellite business lost two per cent of its customers in the five weeks to 1 February.

What the government says is: 'Well, those NBN customers are going to move across to the NBN fixed wireless product. That's what they're doing. It's all a very orderly process.' There's a bit of a problem with that, because in the five weeks to 1 February the NBN fixed wireless business also lost customers. If the two per cent who'd left the NBN satellite business were going to the NBN fixed wireless business, then that number should have gone up, but it actually went down.

It remains to be seen whether this minister has any sort of strategic view on the NBN. It's not clear that the minister does. I think the government sees the NBN as a high-vis photo opportunity. But this is an incredibly important entity which is owned by Australian taxpayers, and what we are seeing for the very first time in its history under the watch of this government is that, apart from those greenfields developments, where the numbers will always grow, collectively, the other customers are going down—by 43,000 in 2023, by 5½ thousand in just the last few weeks.

The minister did talk, in fairness, about the satellite losses. A year or so ago, the minister said, 'Alright: there are some issues in satellites, so what I'm going to do is I'm going to convene a round table.' A round table was convened. Academics were invited. But when you're going up against Elon Musk and his Starlink business, frankly, you need a little bit more than a government led round table. But that's pretty much all we've got from this minister.

There are very significant problems with the NBN, and it is concerning that we don't really see the minister actually engage in any of these more strategic questions about the future of this incredibly important entity, an entity which, under this government, had a negative cash flow of $1 billion in the last six months. In the prior six-month period, the six months to the end of December 2022, the negative cash flow was around $600 million. So it has gotten $400 million worse in 12 months under this government, and $1 billion of cash has gone out the door in the last six months. Again, the response from this government is, 'Here's a high-vis photo opportunity,' and that's about it. Serious issues require serious stewardship. We're not really seeing that at all.

We do need to talk about the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Consumer Safeguards and Other Measures) Bill 2023. This is a bill that builds upon a process that was started by the coalition government when, back in 2020, we established the regime of what are known as statutory infrastructure providers, or SIPs. The NBN is the biggest SIP. It's not the only SIP; there are other, smaller SIPs as well. They're basically entities that provide internet services to homes, businesses and so on. There are a number of rules, sensible rules, that apply. If you're going to hold yourself out as a statutory infrastructure provider, there are certain things you need to be able to do. There are certain penalties if you don't do those things, and there are certain requirements.

This bill seeks to build upon some of those existing requirements and take some further steps. For instance, it would bring in private networks into the SIP regime, which, to date, has not been the case. A private network is when a property developer—usually—creates a localised telecommunications network for a particular property development. Sometimes in the past those networks have not been included and, as a consequence, consumers have not been able to get the protection of the SIP regime when things go wrong. The government says we should extend the regime to include those private networks, and we think that is sensible. A number of others are modest and sensible changes to this bill.

But on the point of competence, which is so important in government, this bill is reflective of another real trend we are seeing in this portfolio area. Broadly, you have two categories: failing or drifting. I have run through a number of the failing areas and this one I think, in fairness, is more in the drifting category. When I say 'drifting' I mean the minister has a bit of a problem here, because when the minister released this bill and consultation process back in August of 2022, she announced a new round of public consultation on these laws related to the SIP regime. She invited submissions on the draft bill and had a relatively short consultation period. People had to have their submissions in by the end of September '22. The minister said she pledged to introduce the bill into parliament by the end of 2022. It's 2024 now, so 2022 was quite a long time ago. The minister missed January, missed February, missed March, missed April, missed May, June, July—you're familiar with all the months. Only right at the end of 2023 did this bill materialise and, when it did, it was a bit of a surprise to the sector and stakeholders because they had not been consulted since 2022. It just sort of sat somewhere, piling up in the minister 's office, and this bill has come forward right at the end of 2023. It is a very real concern why it would take that long.

Broadly, we on this side support these provisions. There is an area where the Senate needs to do some work in reviewing the provisions of this bill. It creates a division which enables further reporting by ACMA on the performance of telecommunications companies. That is sensible at the high level but there are concerns that the bill has been very sloppily drafted and doesn't take account of the different ways that different telecommunication companies report these matters, and there is a risk of confusion in the marketplace on the lack of clarity about reporting that comes as a part of the bill.

The Senate committee will look into that and consider any sensible amendments that the Senate may put forward. Broadly, we do support this bill. We are disappointed that it went nowhere for a year. We are gravely concerned about the conduct of this portfolio overall in telecommunications regulation and, frankly, more broadly, leadership but we do not propose to oppose this bill and we look forward to any amendments or further discussions that may come from the Senate inquiry.

Debate adjourned.