Wednesday, 25 March 2015
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014, Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014 and the Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Amendment Bill 2014. These bills are part of the repeal day package, and they are very minor matters indeed—even smaller than the first round in March of last year. In March, the changes to the Communications portfolio amounted to about $35 million a year—not what you would call a big effort by any measure. This time the savings amount to about $18 million, which is about half the size.
These bills do a number of things. They repeal outdated provisions in respect of the making of e-marketing industry codes and the supply of telephone sex services. They repeal preselection requirements. They make the registration period for the Do Not Call Register indefinite. They streamline notice requirements to improve the operation of the Customer Service Guarantee and enable the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to publish documents on the web rather than in the Gazette. These amendments are not contentious, and they have the support of the industry and of consumer representatives. The best way to describe these two bills is that they are a rudimentary cleaning-up exercise.
However, bundled up in these bills are changes to the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency and the delivery of the universal service obligation—changes that are reflected in the revised Commonwealth agreement with Telstra on the National Broadband Network. On 14 December 2014, the government reached agreement with Telstra on the revised Commonwealth agreements, which included the TUSMA agreement. Labor senators noted that, in a collection of thin media releases, no details were forthcoming from the government on the TUSMA agreement, despite the fact that these deregulation bills were before the Senate. Until these bills were referred to committee, the only detail available to the public and to the opposition on the amendments to the TUSMA agreement was contained in material released by Telstra under its market disclosure obligations. This was also true of the remaining Commonwealth agreements and the definitive agreement. Absurdly, like most of the publicly available material on the National Broadband Network, it is available through the market, not the government-owned company.
Malcolm Turnbull has promised transparency not once, not twice but repeatedly. He said:
Maximum transparency is going to be given to this project.
But our commitment is, our focus is, to have a much greater level of transparency and openness.
I quote again:
The bottom line is that as far as the NBN project is concerned, the government's commitment is to be completely transparent …
The main promise, the most important thing we said about the NBN was that we would tell the truth, and we would liberate the management of NBN Co to tell that truth.
You will be aware that Government policy provides for increased scrutiny and transparency of NBN Co and its activities.
Still further again:
The Government requires a high degree of transparency from NBN Co in its communication with the public and Parliament.
The truth of the matter is that, as with most of the NBN promises, Mr Turnbull has failed to live up to his own rhetoric. Secrecy, in fact, is the order of the day. The government has embarked—
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
Sorry, what was that?
You cannot possibly maintain the claim that this government has been transparent and open about the NBN when it has refused to provide even the most basic details to this parliament. Yet, of course, we find out from matters reported to the stock exchange that there are questions that this parliament rightfully should have had answers to.
The government emphasised in December 2014 that revisions to the TUSMA agreement do not include any:
But what we see is that, under the revised TUSMA agreement negotiated by the government, the period of time within which Telstra may be required to take action in the event of a breach has been extended from 14 days to six months. I note that the purpose of the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency is:
We support the delivery of universal service and other public-interest telecommunications services for all Australians through the implementation and effective administration of contracts and grants.
Our aim is to promote high quality and efficient contract and grant management to maximise the benefit for consumers and manage risks appropriately, within a transparent and accountable legislative framework.
Contrary to the government's assertion, this new provision is in fact a weakening—I repeat, a weakening—of the obligations imposed on Telstra to continue to deliver on its STS universal service obligation, its payphones universal service obligation or emergency call services. It has not been included in the TUSMA agreement for the purposes of maximising the benefit to consumers. This provision in the TUSMA agreement, of course, is not in these bills.
So we will not be opposing these bills but, if the Commonwealth had been less secretive in relation to the Commonwealth agreements and their nexus with the TUSMA arrangements in the deregulation bills, the referral back to the committee would not ever have been necessary. These bills could have been passed months ago.
On the face of it, this Telecommunications Legislation Amendment Deregulation Bill 2014 is a fairly inoffensive bill, dealing with a number of fairly uncontroversial deregulation measures. This is interesting, given that the fanfare that accompanied the deregulation days that the government started out with have subsided somewhat—but, nonetheless! A large part of the measures deal with the removal of regulations which were introduced at particular times and for particular reasons which have now become largely obsolete—partly due to the march of technology.
I am just going to raise two issues today, particularly that of the extension of useful provisions of worthwhile government programs such as the Do Not Call Register. My understanding is that unless this bill passes this sitting week—unless we manage to spill it out to budget week—that people who have placed themselves on a Do Not Call Register—something which the Greens strongly support—would find themselves rolling off. In fact, that record would lapse and people would start getting unsolicited telemarketing calls and so on. That is not something that anybody in here supports. We are very happy to make sure that that program does not lapse.
I would draw attention to some bizarre behaviour by the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on his Facebook page, proposing that the Labor Party and the Australian Greens are putting the Do Not Call Register at risk. He knew absolutely damn well that that was not the case. Presuming that Senator Conroy or Mr Clare had made this claim, we certainly indicated directly to Mr Turnbull's office that we certainly had no intention of holding up these provision of the deregulation bill. They are completely uncontroversial and I think the blowback on Mr Turnbull's Facebook page from that rather peculiar intervention probably speaks for itself.
The management of this bill itself has been a bit of a case study in how not to handle legislation—the very fact that we are getting into it almost at the end of March is a case in point. The bill was introduced last October, right in the middle of the debate about the government's controversial data retention legislation, which we will return to properly sometime this morning. One of the things that this bill originally did was weaken the reporting obligations regarding data requests. And there has been a certain amount of confusion. The police, anticorruption agencies and other enforcement agencies are required to report to the Attorney-General's Department every year how many warrantless authorisations and how many warranted interception requests for stored communications and live communications they require. It is not a bad reporting obligation. We like to see more detail produced, particularly on the number of people who are caught up. But, nonetheless, that amounts in aggregate to about 340,000 warrantless metadata requests a year, including prospective requests, by our agencies to track people around the landscape effectively in real time. It is about 340,000 a year in total and about 4,700 warranted interception requests. That is what the police agencies are obliged to report under the TIA Act.
What telecommunications providers are required to report to the ACMA, however, is an entirely different matter, and the total aggregate number is nearly three-quarters of a million. Presumably, what is happening is that agencies are submitting requests for their logging as one but they are putting them out to multiple telecommunications carriers so the aggregate is nearly three times higher. I guess that in pushing the deregulation broom through places where does not belong that maybe Mr Turnbull was not even aware of this. It was actually proposing to abolish that reporting requirement to the ACMA so that the public would have no idea of the total number of warrantless authorisations that have been requested.
On registering the backlash that immediately erupted when people realised what he was proposing to do, Minister Turnbull had the good sense to make those provisions of the bill disappear and render this bill largely uncontroversial. There was a brief Senate inquiry conducted into the bill, which ended in re-referral back to the committee as some senators were concerned that arrangements involving Telstra, NBN Co and TUSMA would have some bearing on the bill. Senator Carr addressed this briefly.
I think this is one example of how not to manage a bill through the parliament but, nonetheless, as I have indicated and as Senator Carr has indicated, the measures contained herein are largely uncontroversial—partly because Minister Turnbull had the good sense to remove the sting in the tail that would have removed important information from the public domain.
On behalf of the Australian Greens I am happy to commend this bill to the chamber.
I think there are no other colleagues seeking to make a contribution, so I thank those who have. I just want to do three things quickly to briefly cover off the main provisions of the bills and respond to some of the points raised by Senator Carr and Senator Ludlam.
The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014 will streamline telecommunications regulation while maintaining important consumer safeguards. The amendments will contribute to the government's agenda of cutting red tape by $1 billion every year to reduce the regulatory burden. The bill delivers reform in the portfolio through better tailored regulation to lower the cost burden on industry and consumers, with expected savings of $6.71 million a year. There has been extensive and close consultation between industry, consumer groups, government agencies and the Department of Communications. The government released a discussion paper and telecommunications deregulation road map in early 2014, followed up with a stakeholder forum in May last year. In February, as colleagues would know, the Senate referred the bill to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by May. The committee recommended that the bills be passed; indeed, this was the second time that the committee had examined these bills.
The main measures in the bill as amended and passed in the other place include the abolition of TUSMA, which was announced in the May budget, and the transfer of its functions to the Department of Communications; the repeal of minor regulatory requirements governing certain adult phone services; the removal of the time limit on registration on the Do Not Call Register that Senator Ludlam referred to; the removal of the arrangements for the ACMA to register e-marketing codes under the Telecommunications Act; a reduction in the scope of telephone preselection obligations; minor compliance changes relating to the publication of notices; and a minor change to the consumer notification obligation concerning the customer service guarantee. A lot of these are just common-sense changes which reflect the changing world that we are in and how telecommunications have changed over time.
There were two points that Senator Carr raised that I want to cover off that were also touched on by Labor senators in their additional comments in the Senate committee report. The first is Labor senators' concern that there was limited information provided by government on the amendments to the TUSMA agreement. I indicate that the reality is that comprehensive information has been shared by the government and Telstra. Mr Turnbull's media release at the time, as well as Telstra's ASX announcement at the time of signing, provided comprehensive information in relation to the amendments to the TUSMA agreement. Telstra's ASX announcement was and still is available via a link on the department's website. There is also a summary of the terms of the TUSMA agreement on the TUSMA website, and TUSMA is required to publish that information under section 27 of the TUSMA Act. If the TLA dereg. bills are passed, and it looks like they will be, then the department will make available the same information on the department's website.
Labor senators also were concerned that moving from a 14-day period to up to six months to enforce a contractual breach is a weakening of the TUSMA agreement. Let me just explain it. The rationale for the extension from 14 days to six months is that it provides the Commonwealth with a greater period of time to exercise its rights, providing TUSMA or, as is proposed by the bill, the Department of Communications greater flexibility, given that both TUSMA and the ACMA have enforcement roles in this area. The change does not prevent the Commonwealth from taking action more quickly under the contract if that is warranted, but it does enable greater time to coordinate with the ACMA on whether regulatory or contractual action will occur if there is a breach. I hope that provides some comfort to colleagues.
Senator Ludlam raised the issue of record-keeping changes and the amendment that was moved in the House of Representatives. Following the introduction of the bills in the other place, public concerns were aired in relation to section 5 of the bill, which sought to remove certain record-keeping and disclosure requirements listed in part 13 of the 1997 act. In light of the current focus on data and privacy in the telecommunications industry, the government moved an amendment to remove schedule 5 in its entirety from the bill. The government believe that disclosure reporting should be consistent across sectors before removing an existing reporting obligation. While the record-keeping changes proposed in schedule 5 reflected a particular industry concern that the requirements were duplicated across portfolios, the government have determined that existing arrangements will continue until a more consistent framework can be agreed upon. As colleagues know, the bill, as amended in that way, went through the House at the end of last year, which is why it is before us today in its current form.
I hope that provides some additional context for colleagues in relation to that particular change and I commend the bills to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bills read a second time.