Monday, 25 November 2019
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019; Second Reading
It is with great pleasure that I follow Senator Marielle Smith's very thorough contribution on the issues that are raised in this bill and also the broader issues that plague many Australians in terms of unwanted and unsolicited calls. I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019, introduced by Senator Griff. In my role as Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I would also like to commend Senator Griff —as most people, if not all, have in their contributions—for bringing forward this piece of legislation and the discussion on concerns raised by some in our community.
As has been previously mentioned, the primary purpose of this bill is to provide people with more control over the receipt of unsolicited communications. The bill seeks to amend the Spam Act to require political parties to provide an 'unsubscribe' function for all unsolicited electronic communication, namely SMS and email, which contains content that aims to influence the way electors vote in a federal election. It also proposes to amend the Electoral Act to ensure actors used for the purposes of a political telephone campaign are identified as such at the beginning of the voice call; and the Do Not Call Register Act to remove the existing blanket exception for registered charities which allows them to make telemarketing calls to consumers who are on the Do Not Call Register—that is, removing that exemption for charities whereby they can ring Australians who have taken the time to register themselves so they can try to avoid unsolicited phone calls. Registered charities do not have to abide by that law to not ring people on the Do Not Call Register. I have to say, though, as somebody who knows some people who have been on the Do Not Call Register, that I'm not sure how well it actually works, because it seems that it's not just registered charities that somehow have your number and make unsolicited phone calls.
Colleagues would be aware that the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters is in the process of conducting the inquiry into the conduct of the 2019 federal election. In fact, the committee will be holding a public hearing on Friday 6 December, this year. Further public hearings will be held in January, February and March next year, and the committee will report our findings and recommendations by, hopefully, July 2020. That's the time line the committee intends to meet. To date, the committee has received some 140 written submissions. Some of them have come from our parliamentary colleagues. Each of the registered political parties that participated in the election have provided submissions and many interested organisations and academics have also contributed.
As the committee has been at pains to point out in the past, Australians have never been afraid of challenging the operation of our electoral system. Previous reports from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, JSCEM, have assisted in the continuing modernisation of our voting system and the conduct of election campaigns. These inquiries play an extremely important role in facilitating comment and suggestions by experts, and everyday members of the community on the conduct of our federal elections. It's also important for those of us who are intimately involved in election campaigns to take the time to reflect on the feedback we receive from concerned individuals about the conduct of each election—and it's always an interesting exercise to read the submissions the committee receives.
Of course, the conduct of Mr Palmer and his United Australia Party has drawn a lot of comment in the contributions made here today, and, of course, in the wider community. It is not just unsolicited text messages that have been raised with the committee; members of the public have been most concerned about the number of what we have come to know as robocalls, along with advertising that they consider to be false or misleading. There is no doubt that Mr Palmer's millions of unsolicited text messages sent out throughout the nation annoyed and upset many members of our community. As was indicated in the contributions by Senator Kitching and Senator O'Neill, Mr Palmer's operation contained geographically targeted slogans and campaign material, with the ABC reporting that, as of January 2019, more than 5.6 million Australian phones had received text messages from Mr Palmer and the United Australia Party. The absolute scale and frequency of the operation led to widespread community concern which prompted over 3,000 complaints from consumers to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, who is the regulator which oversees spam and unsolicited communications.
In responding to that extraordinarily large number of complaints over Mr Palmer's campaign of sending unsolicited communication, ACMA noted that, under the current laws, political parties are free to send campaign material as long as that material is not commercial in nature. ACMA said:
Calls, emails or SMS that are not commercial—that is they do not have a commercial purpose—are generally allowed and not required to comply with the obligations under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act 2003. Communications about political matters do not usually include a commercial element.
While you could say the conduct of Mr Palmer goes to issues much broader than those in this bill, it is well-established that Mr Palmer was willing to spend whatever necessary to undermine the Labor Party. Of course, this is a man who is not really interested in paying his workers their entitlements; nor is he, it seems—unless he paid in the last week or so—interested in paying a bill that is owed. He owes about $7,000 to the Australian parliament. With the wall-to-wall advertising that sought to bend the facts to suit whatever argument Mr Palmer was trying to make, the ability of a high-wealth individual to leverage such legislative exemptions in relation to electronic messaging is worthy of much closer scrutiny. It certainly is. I think most people in the parliament would agree that the activities of Mr Palmer and the United Australia Party deserve much closer scrutiny.
However, part of that scrutiny has to ensure that any changes reflect the wishes and priorities of the community. Our electoral system deserves integrity. There should not be any unintended or adverse impacts on organisations that need to be able to communicate with our community. It is very important that, when we look at these issues, we ensure that there are no unintended or adverse impacts on organisations that need to actually communicate with our community. That is extremely important.
One of the important safeguards that must be preserved to protect our democracy is the compliance of registered political parties with all of the various laws associated with communication of political messages. Another important safeguard is regular review and assurance that those laws and those regulations meet community expectations—hence the very important role played by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the inquiries that they conduct. The conduct of each election brings with it different feedback and priorities from the community. The conduct of the 2016 federal election was followed by significant public concern around the authorisation and legitimacy of election material and the amount and influence of foreign donations to political parties. A cursory examination of the submissions received to date for the inquiry into the conduct of the 2019 election shows considerable public concern about the use of robocalls and the content of political advertising. It would be interesting to learn, through the public hearing process of the inquiry, what priorities members of the public place on various options for reform.
We know that ACMA received thousands of complaints—I've talked about that—which was an extraordinarily large amount. There were over 3,000 complaints. We also know, again, that complaints to various agencies about scam calls and robocalls are now in the hundreds of thousands. Part of the fallout from the 2016 federal election was a dramatic increase in the recording of complaints about unsolicited political messages from campaigns right across the political spectrum. They ranged from thousands of text messages purporting to be from Mr Malcolm Turnbull, urging electors to vote for Mr Ross Vasta to ensure stable government, to messages from the Greens urging votes for Mr Adam Bandt in Melbourne and Mr Jason Ball in Higgins, respectively. To be fair, and to keep things in perspective, ACMA says:
… it received 37 complaints about text messages containing the word "Liberal" during the election campaign, and 36 complaints about messages containing the word "Labor"—
during and following the 2016 federal election campaign. This compares to ACMA receiving 244 complaints about election related telephone calls during May and June of 2016, and 214 of those complaints related to robocalls. At the time, ACMA said:
The actual … figure may be higher, but there was insufficient information in a number of complaints received to be able to clearly state that the calls related to election/political matters.
Clearly there has been a significant change between the 2016 election and the 2019 election.
As a parliament we owe it to the Australian people to look at what went on and what their priorities are for reform. However, at this time of significant challenge for large parts of our society, we need to ensure that we don't impede many important organisations, as I've already said, from communicating with our community and appealing for help and assistance. I am thinking particularly of the many assistance, volunteer firefighting and animal welfare organisations that are appealing for all kinds of help that we can offer in combating and dealing with consequences of the current bushfires ravaging so many of our communities. There are also calls for financial and other assistance that go out from many hardworking and respected charities in Australia at times of natural disaster throughout the world on behalf of people left stranded and homeless and without clothing, income or any support.
I therefore urge Senator Griff to consider a number of things: to allow JSCEM, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, to complete its important work in reviewing the conduct of the 2019 federal election and to report back to both chambers on the evidence for the need and priorities for reform as expressed by the Australian community; and to work with those of us across the parliament who have a genuine belief in reform to ensure that this bill truly reflects the priorities that the broader community demands, without unintentionally impacting on organisations or incidents and causes that are of genuine concern to Australians.
I was interested to listen to Senator Marielle Smith's contribution. She talked about the person that called in to ABC Radio to discuss their reaction to receiving a robocall. Senator Smith outlined that ACMA issued a formal warning, in that case to the South Australian division of the Liberal Party, for making robocalls during prohibited calling times, in the early hours of the morning, well before what is permitted in telemarketing standards.
The issues contained in this bill are of legitimate concern to the community, and Labor acknowledges the importance of Australians having better control over what unsolicited communications they receive and from whom. The proposals contained in Senator Griff's bill are worthy of more serious consideration and investigation, and I thank him, as others before me in their contributions have done, for bringing these issues to the attention of the Senate.