Monday, 25 November 2019
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
This bill deals with unwanted calls and texts from political parties, candidates and charities.
Why? Because the volume of many of these calls has reached epidemic proportions and the public deserve the right to be protected from harassment.
Unlike telemarketers, charities, political parties and candidates are exempt from the restrictions imposed by the Do Not Call Register Act, meaning they can call people who have placed their phone number on the Do Not Call Register at any time, for any purpose.
Political parties and charities are also exempt from the rules in the Spam Act that say you need someone's permission before you can call them. They are also exempt from the requirement to provide an unsubscribe option when sending a text or email.
The public don't want to receive unsolicited calls and texts, particularly when they haven't given consent, but the current laws give them no way of pushing back against these.
This bill attempts to give some choice and control back to the people by doing three things.
Firstly, it will allow those on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving charity calls.
Why is this necessary, and why charities in particular?
Because, of all the exempt groups that are allowed to access numbers on the Do Not Call Register, charity calls account for the biggest share of unwanted calls by far.
Too many Australians—particularly elderly people—report feeling harassed by repeated calls from charities bothering them for money.
Bona fide charities play a very important part in society.
We all value their work and recognise they must fundraise, but they should never be permitted to become a nuisance where they harass and badger often older members of our community.
A few years ago, Choice joined forces with advocacy group National Seniors to call for an end to unwanted charity calls. Its research found one in four of the people surveyed received unwanted charity calls each and every week.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of people thought charities should not be allowed to call numbers on the Do Not Call Register.
And ACMA, in its 'Unsolicited calls in Australia' study late last year, found 69 per cent of landline phone users received a significant number of unsolicited charity calls in the last six months. One-third of these people reported getting these unwanted calls at least weekly.
And, demonstrating why this bill is needed, the research showed one-third of people who received unwanted calls from charities found them a worry—mostly because they considered the calls a nuisance or because they were being hammered with repeat calls.
What is most abhorrent about these calls is that older Australians are the ones most likely to be targeted. Older Australians are the prey that some charities cherish. Older people are more likely to answer their landline phone during the day and are often more susceptible to a heart-wrenching sales pitch.
They are the ideal age to start a relationship that may end with a sizeable bequest.
I've been aware of this problem for a long time, which is what prompted me to draft this bill in the previous parliament and restore it to this parliament.
The issue was brought home to me around six or seven weeks ago by a constituent who told me he'd reached the end of his tether.
In just a single day, this elderly constituent received 12 unwanted calls—half of which were from charities.
The only way he believed he could stop the harassment was to call his service provider and change his phone number. This will, of course, probably give him only a temporary reprieve from the harassment.
Why should he be made to do this?
This bill will ensure that people such as my elderly constituent can take action that deals with the problem without the type of inconvenience, sacrifice and stress he has endured.
All that he and others like him would like to do is just register on the Do Not Call register so that they will not receive calls from charities badgering them. This bill proposes that this can be done at any time after sign-up, too, and can be reversed if the person happens to change their mind.
It's so much simpler than changing phone numbers, or unplugging or turning off your phone, or ignoring calls in case it's a charity telemarketer.
To be clear, this bill won't wipe out the ability of charities to do their fundraising cold calls.
There are almost 12 million phone and fax numbers registered on the Do Not Call Register and they will remain 'charity contactable numbers' unless people request otherwise.
It would mostly be people who are distressed or annoyed by charity telemarketing calls who would be motivated to take action and opt out of receiving these calls.
As I mentioned, this bill does three things. Dealing with unwanted charity calls is just one of them.
This bill will also ensure that voters can opt out of receiving unwanted spam messages from political parties and candidates.
Text messages and emails containing electoral matter—as defined by the Commonwealth Electoral Act—will be required to have an 'unsubscribe' function, something very obvious but something that doesn't exist now. This will mean that voters can choose whether to keep receiving those messages from a particular party or candidate or not.
The initial message is not blocked—so it can't be construed as restricting the implied freedom of political expression.
But it will stop repeat spamming if the recipient chooses to opt out from receiving messages from a particular party or candidate.
This puts political texts and emails in line with commercial electronic messages, which need to have an 'unsubscribe' function.
This would mean an end to political spam from the likes of Clive Palmer, as we saw during the most recent federal election, or even continual texting—sometimes called mass texting or 'mexting'—by other political parties and candidates.
So Labor, Liberals and the Greens—get on board with this very simple and respectful change.
Let the public choose whether they want to continue receiving your messages or not.
Political parties don't do themselves any favours by force-feeding their political material to unwilling voters.
The SA division of the Liberal Party found out in July that it doesn't pay to annoy voters.
Colleagues might remember that this party mistimed their robocalls at the crack of dawn, instead of a civilised late-afternoon or early-evening broadcast. There were many complaints to ACMA.
I've had a further look at this because I wanted to assure myself that behaviour of this kind is also captured by current law and should not be permitted. Luckily it is.
All telemarketing calls—even those from charities and political parties—have to abide by the industry standard set out in the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017. That standard specifies the hours within which fundraising calls, opinion polls and other research-type calls must happen.
Failure to abide by these rules can result in a hefty fine of up to $250,000—though in the case of the SA Liberals, it has only resulted in a formal warning from ACMA, and a promise to come down harder if it happens again.
Hopefully the party have put in fail-safes to ensure that they won't be annoying South Australian voters yet again.
Finally, the bill also seeks to ensure more honest telephone campaigning during elections, by ensuring that the use of actors in calls is disclosed at the outset.
So—no more calls where an actor may be impersonating a nurse, or someone on the age pension, or any other person who appears to be giving you an honest testimonial—when in reality it is often just a big con.
These measures are incredibly sensible.
They strike the right balance by preserving the rights of charities, political parties and candidates to continue doing what they're used to doing—but not at the cost of annoying and stressing fellow Australians.
This bill, if enacted, would allow people to choose who gets to bother them on the phone.
Having said that—this bill doesn't go far enough.
What I'd really like to see is all exemptions for political parties, candidates and charities removed from the Spam Act and the Do Not Call Register.
Because that's exactly what the public—the voters—want!
Unfortunately, this place will never allow that to happen, so I've aimed for the most important changes that I think are necessary and that give some power back to the people.
Two weeks ago I met with over 50 elderly people who attended a Spam and Scam information session in Victor Harbor in South Australia that was put together by my parliamentary colleague Rebekha Sharkie.
Overwhelmingly charities—whether they are bona fide or not—and the way many prey on the elderly were seen as a very big issue. They were all very supportive of what this bill will do, and it's incumbent on us here today to support our elderly with a solution that will work for them.
So here we are today with a very simple and effective method to restrict charities from harassing the elderly, and to stop the public being spammed with text messages from political parties and candidates.
The question is—will the major parties support this bill and thereby respect the public, or will they continue to see themselves as above all this and cling stubbornly to their exemptions, regardless of the ill will it is causing?
I thank my colleague opposite Senator Griff for this private senator's bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019, because he is correct: there is a lot of concern in our community about a range of these issues. Just in my own suburb, where the NBN has been rolled out, all of a sudden people, including my own household, are getting phone calls from scammers who are basically threatening that, if we don't dial or press the numbers they want and respond to them, our phone services, NBN and other things are going to be cut off. Particularly for the elderly, there are real concerns in terms of the impact of the scams and the unwelcome intrusion into their lives. But this bill isn't specifically looking to address those kinds of scams. It's looking to address a few other areas.
There are four key areas that Senator Griff seeks to address in this bill. The first is to amend the Spam Act, but it's not about those people who are seeking to rip off the elderly financially. He is looking to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an 'unsubscribe' function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content. He is seeking to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require that voice calls communicating an electoral matter identify the use of actors at the beginning of the call. He is seeking to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable people who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving calls from charities. And he is seeking to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to require the Australian Communications and Media Authority to change relevant industry standards to comply with the proposed amendments to the Do Not Call Register Act.
The first comment I would make here is that there are elements of what Senator Griff has put forward that I support. For example, we all remember some of the advertisements we've seen in previous elections where people are making heartfelt pleas to the public to look at an issue, but then it transpires, when you dig into it, that they're not actually genuine mums or grandparents or tradies or whatever but are actors who have been brought in for an ad. There are elements of truth in that advertising. I actually have a high degree of empathy for what Senator Griff is seeking to put forward in that area.
In some of the other areas though, around the ability of elected members to reach the community, to identify areas of concern, I've heard mixed feedback about that in terms of charities. There's been mixed feedback in terms of whether this will have an undue impact on charities. That's why the work of the Senate is so important in the passage of a piece of legislation. Senator Griff would well know that the normal process is for bills, once introduced, to go to a committee which looks at which of them should be referred for examination.
I happen to chair the Senate's Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. We would normally get a reference from that committee to look at a bill, so we give a chance for witnesses across the spectrum—members of the public, who Senator Griff has rightly identified, who have concerns but also regulators, in this case charities, and other people—to come and look at the bill and to dissect the bill and say, 'This would work, but this may have unintended consequences,' particularly in this area where we also potentially start getting into constitutional issues. I've dealt with those on a number of different committees. There are experts in constitutional law who will come to committees and provide detailed evidence as to the likelihood of something surviving a High Court challenge and whether or not the wording or the effect should be changed, such that it is likely to achieve the intended outcome without being subject to a challenge which would actually make the legislation not only not achieve the outcome but potentially cause lots of cost and angst for both the taxpayer, the public or companies down the track. The process we have in place, where a bill will come to a Senate committee for review, is an important part of the process.
My understanding is that, in that committee that looks at this, there has been no move to bring that forward to an investigation by a Senate committee, which means that the Senate has been deprived of the opportunity to seek the views of the broader Australian community—the stakeholders who would be impacted by this—to have their say about the things that they welcome, the things that could be tweaked, and the things that they oppose because of the unintended consequences. For that reason, up-front, I can say the government won't be supporting the bill. The bill hasn't been through that process. There are also a number of concerns that the government holds about some of the content.
The protections that already exist are fairly extensive. I will just talk through some of those as well as some of the feedback I've had from people about the communications that modern social media, text and online options provide for communicating with constituents. It is fair to say that consumer protection rules have improved over time to give consumers more and more choice around what it is they do or don't receive. In fact, going back to 2006, the Howard government passed the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act was passed in 2003 for this purpose. In their day, these were both groundbreaking pieces of legislation.
The Do Not Call Register Act 2006 created the Do Not Call Register, which allows consumers to opt out of unsolicited telemarketing and marketing faxes on their personal phone numbers. There are now approximately 11.7 million users registered on this scheme. I do note—as many people have indicated, in fact, even within my own family—this doesn't prevent spam calls occurring from overseas. There are numerous people—again, including my own family—who get calls from Tunisia and other parts of the world, where we know no-one and have no business dealings et cetera. So I recognise that, for many people in our community, these Australian based acts don't necessarily remove the problem entirely. But it is beyond the ability of an Australian based government to regulate what happens in overseas countries.
The Spam Act 2003 provides a legislative protection from spam messages, both internet based and through text messages such as SMS. It's appropriate for the government to continue to assess consumer protections over time so they remain fit for purpose as technology evolves. The government will continue to assess these and the issues raised in Senator Griff's bill, but one of the venues for this chamber to have done that would be the environment and communications committees.
People are concerned about not only the texts but also the calls and emails—particularly emails that encourage people to tap on links. Or, as we've seen recently with the Australian National University, there is now the potential for emails—even if they're not opened—to infect a system once they appear in somebody's inbox. We saw with the ANU the great breaches that occurred there due to those kinds of emails. This is a timely reminder not only for individuals about their own data protection but also for companies and institutions to review where they are up to with their data protection around cyber. If needs be, they can access some of the supports that are available from the Australian Signals Directorate, feeding into hubs around the country where there's information available to help people with their cybersecurity.
Without consultation with stakeholders through the committee process, the concerns that the government holds have yet to be substantiated. This is part of the reason that we won't be rubberstamping or supporting a bill without that additional scrutiny here today. Senator Griff has mentioned a number of the concerns. One is the implied right of political freedom, and he believes that he has taken measures within the bill to provide for that. But, again, without constitutional law experts reviewing that, it would be foolhardy of the Senate to just pass it without actually providing the opportunity for expert opinion on what these measures actually provide.
I would like to quickly touch on the existing laws around unsolicited marketing communications. Under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006, telemarketing calls and faxes can't be made or sent to numbers listed on the register without the consent of the accountholder. Consent can be express—for example, somebody can just tick a box on a form—or it can be inferred—that is, you have an existing business relationship with a stakeholder, who can then communicate with you. Telemarketing calls and marketing faxes are calls and faxes that offer or advertise goods and services, land, and business and investment opportunities. The definition also specifically includes the solicitation of donations. There are various exceptions, including for communications about important things—for example, product recalls, fault rectifications, appointments or payments. I think the majority of people would recognise that, whilst you may not wish to receive a marketing call for a product, if you've already bought a product and it is faulty, then you would wish to hear from people about that.
The exemptions also extend to government bodies, registered charities, political parties, election candidates, independent members of parliament, and educational institutions, where they make calls to a current or past member, a past student, or their households. These were designed, at the time, to protect the broader public interest by recognising, particularly in the case of charities, the important work that charities do. Charities indicate that a substantial amount of the funds that they require to operate comes through the operation of people who solicit donations through telemarketing. So one of the things that a Senate inquiry would do would be to provide an opportunity for charities and the charity regulator to look at what the implications would be, what the alternatives would be and to get feedback from the broader Australian community as to, if they wish to continue to give to charities and if it isn't through telephone marketing, what other avenues may well work.
I'll move on to electronic messages. Under the Spam Act 2003, commercial electronic messages such as text messages and emails with an Australian link are prohibited without consent. Again, it can be expressed or inferred consent, along the lines of telemarketing calls and faxes, but it doesn't specifically include the soliciting of donations. Messages that have been consented to must include a functional 'unsubscribe' facility. The exemption still applies for factual issues such as the recall of a faulty product, and there are still exemptions under that act for registered charities, government bodies, registered political parties and educational institutions—although in that last case only if they're communicating with past students. Again, these exemptions operate because of the public interest which was foreseen at the time the bill went through.
When it comes to political communication and freedom of political communication, one of the things I have observed through my time both in the House of Representatives and here in the Senate is that there are some in our community who wish they could hear more from their elected members, particularly outside of an election cycle. People sometimes get cynical and say, 'The only time we hear from an elected member of parliament is during an election cycle.' On the other hand you have people who object to newsletters, emails or other things, if they receive them, and say, 'We don't want our inbox or physical letterbox filled up with your junk.' There is a diversity of opinion across our community. One of the things that I have found useful is to have regular communication with people on topics that they are interested in.
The way to establish what people are interested this is to give them the opportunity to give feedback to the office. As I look at Acting Deputy President Sterle, it might be transport issues. People might be interested in road safety and the condition of roads. It might be the health system, education or national defence. There are several ways that people who are elected can do that, whether it be through surveys we include with things like new-elector letters, whether it be through putting a QR code on a survey or any information we send out to the population, or whether it be through using some of the more modern technologies such as automated polls.
Under the legislation the government passed, there is identification that it is an electronic poll being conducted on behalf of a particular political party or elected member, so people, if they don't want that, can hang up at that point. They don't have to participate. But for the number of people who have participated in the ones that I've conducted, where they have given feedback and said, 'Yes, these issues are important to us,' I've had staff follow up with a personal phone call to those people where they have left a phone number they've been happy to be contacted on. We have then followed up with a regular email when there are significant issues that occur in the portfolio areas that they are interested in.
If we're going to restore trust in our institution of parliament, there have to be vehicles whereby elected members of parliament can consistently—not just during an election period, but consistently—reach out with material that is valuable to the individual constituent. It doesn't mean smothering them with the latest talking points from a party; it means having a method to engage and ask: 'What are the policy or local issues that are important to you? How can I communicate with you more effectively?' My concern is that if we start closing down some of those avenues we will get back to a point where people will only hear from elected members, candidates or political parties in the run-up to an election, which will just breed cynicism. And as we look around the world, with the rise of totalitarian regimes, if ever there was a time when we needed people in Australia to value their democracy—the fact that they have a say in electing who will represent them in government and making laws—it is now. Modern communications, whether it be using emails, text messages or social media, are one avenue whereby elected members can reach out, engage with people, find out what they're interested in and talk with them.
The implied freedom of political communication is a critical part, I believe, of communicating between elected members representing the institution of the parliament and representing their constituents. I would be very reluctant to pass laws that made that process less effective without the kind of inquiry that the Senate legislation committees apply so that we can fully understand what would work, what may have unintended consequences and what could be improved.
On that basis, whilst I recognise and applaud the intent behind Senator Griff's private member's bill, I note the fact that it hasn't had the normal scrutiny that this chamber affords to bills to give all the stakeholders involved the opportunity to have their say, and the fact that there are a number of questions that have been raised about either the efficacy or the unintended consequences of some of the measures proposed, although I support some of those measures and am sympathetic to most. I believe that to support this without that committee process would not be wise, and for that reason I will not be supporting the bill.
I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019. As outlined in the explanatory memorandum, the primary purpose of this bill is to provide consumers with more control over the receiving of unsolicited communications. The bill proposes to achieve this by amending exemptions in which provided entities, such as political parties and charities, have greater flexibility on unsolicited communications.
This bill before the Senate proposes to make several changes. They are (1) to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable consumers who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving phone calls from charities; (2) to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an 'unsubscribe' function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content; (3) to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require that voice calls communicating in an electoral matter to a person identify the use of any actors at the beginning of the call; and (4) to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to make other consequential amendments.
In reference to these proposed changes, it is important to state at the outset that Labor acknowledges Senator Griff has brought these proposals forward in good faith. In doing so, Senator Griff is seeking to address issues of legitimate concern to many members of the community. The actions of Clive Palmer in the run-up to and throughout the 2019 election are a clear representation for many of us of Senator Griff's concerns. Over the space of several months, we saw a relentless campaign by Clive Palmer and his United Australia Party in unleashing a barrage of unsolicited text messages on voters, many of which contained false claims. This 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 Clive Palmer and the UAP. Furthermore, the 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, the regulator overseeing spam and unsolicited communications.
Just so that we're clear: the Australian Communications and Media Authority is responsible for administering the Do Not Call Register as well as enforcing the Do Not Call Register Act 2006, the related Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017 and the Fax Marketing Industry Standard 2011. There are currently 10.9 million numbers on the Do Not Call Register, including 5.6 million fixed-line numbers, 4.9 million mobile numbers, and 430,000 fax numbers. The registration of mobile numbers is now the fastest-growing registration type. Australians are able to add their fixed-line or mobile telephone numbers to the Do Not Call Register provided those numbers are used primarily for private or domestic purposes. Any number used exclusively as a personal or a business fax number can also be registered.
These amendments seek to provide a method of addressing specific calls from specific entities—for example, calls from political parties, from members of parliament and from political candidates soliciting donations or offering goods and services; calls from educational institutions, where the recipient is or was a student of that institution, offering goods or services; calls from registered charities soliciting donations or offering goods or services; opinion polling; and research calls. In responding to the concerns of Australians, the Australian Communications and Media Authority noted that, under current laws, political parties are free to send campaign material as long as that material is not commercial in nature. As an Australian Communications and Media Authority spokesman 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.
Whilst the conduct of Clive Palmer and the UAP goes to issues much broader than this bill, it is well established that Clive Palmer was willing to spend whatever was necessary in the last election, particularly to undermine the campaign of the Australian Labor Party. When his advertising campaign began in 2018, the advertisements attacked both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party. But, following a preference deal with the coalition in January 2019, Clive Palmer agreed that, in the final period of the election campaign, he would switch his attack exclusively towards Labor. Both sides should be concerned about the principle of this. The ability of a high-wealth individual to leverage such legislative exemptions in relation to electronic messaging and then use this to wage what was effectively a misinformation campaign is obviously an issue of significant concern. So there are clearly some broader issues here that require consideration.
On 25 September 2019, the Australian Communications and Media Authority also issued a formal warning 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 by the telemarketing standard. I refer to an ABC article quoting a caller who phoned in on ABC Radio Adelaide. Her name is Karen. She says:
'My husband's mobile went off so he raced out of bed and sure enough, it was a robocall,' said ABC Radio Adelaide listener Karen, who was disturbed from her slumber just after 6:30am. 'Anyway, I was dozing back to sleep and then my mobile went off so we scored it twice this morning and I actually did the survey. 'Normally I wouldn't do it but I was so angry this morning that I decided to give Mr Marshall and the Liberal Party a bad rating.'
We should all heed the caveat against phoning voters early in the morning.
With conduct and behaviour such as this, which ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has to police, it is no surprise that many Australians are not impressed and are, indeed, quite frustrated with these occurrences and the manner of their intrusiveness. The constant inflow of illegal calls from overseas scammers is also ever present in the lives of Australians, particularly older Australians, who spend a greater proportion of their time at home. Senator Fawcett in his contribution alluded to these phone calls and the disturbances and sense of anxiety they can create in Australians.
Who doesn't have countless examples of getting ready to sit down for dinner, only to have the landline ring, and it is someone from somewhere selling unwanted goods or services, or in fact not even being specific about what they're selling. This is especially unsettling for many families for whom the landline has become a tool seldom used—usually only to communicate with loved ones abroad and at times of emergency. You can imagine you are expecting someone to phone you only in those instances and the phone keeps going off because it is a robocall or someone from overseas running a scam—of which there are so many.
Clearly, the accumulation of these different issues, combined with the intensity of the election campaign, has exhausted the patience of many. In a world where concerns about privacy and the widespread sharing of personal information receive almost daily attention, supercharged by the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and social media, it is important that the parliament remains responsive to such developments and concerns. We shouldn't be always playing catch-up when technology improves.
The Do Not Call Register is one tool relied on by many Australians to reduce the amount of unsolicited communications they receive. I remind the chamber that there are currently 10.9 million numbers that have been registered on the Do Not Call Register. That includes 5.6 million fixed line numbers, 4.9 million mobile numbers, and 430,000 fax numbers. That is an incredible number of phone numbers and fax numbers where Australians have said: 'Enough is enough. I don't want you contacting me. I want to have control over who phones me on my communication devices.'
The register is, in effect, a secure database where individuals can register their Australian telephone number. Once registered, a number will stay on the register indefinitely. Organisations such as telemarketers then need to do what is called 'washing'. They need to wash their calling lists against the register to ensure those numbers are not contacted. It is important to note, however, that when the Do Not Call Register Act was established in 2006, it contained exemptions for charities, religious organisations, educational institutions and political parties. These types of callers were permitted to bypass the register but they are still required to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, which stipulates: when a telemarketer or researcher can call you, what information they have to give you at the start of the call, the information they have to give you if you request it and that they must terminate the call if you ask. I think we all know that the last one might be more honoured in the breach, perhaps. These exemptions are important because, for charitable bodies to continue to provide valuable services to the community, they rely on having various options to conduct fundraising activities.
Nearly half the major charities are members of Fundraising Institute Australia. This is an organisation that actually has its own code of conduct and claims to set a higher bar than the industry standard. It will be important to understand what the impacts of any proposal for change on charities will be and how this will impact on their ability to service the community.
Political parties and candidates can provide voters with information on how to inform their voting behaviour. Electronic communication is one of the key channels and, again, the previous contributors to this debate, Senator Griff and Senator Fawcett, have noted that, obviously, there are many ways in which to contact a voter. It is certainly fair to say that this is, at times, intrusive and disruptive, but that is the overall rough and tumble of democracy itself. Part of our democratic and political system, of course, is the art of persuasion. Obviously, one needs to communicate with voters in order to be able to persuade them on a policy idea, for example.
Clearly, the proposals outlined by Senator Griff deserve attention and consideration. For these reasons, Labor considers it would be appropriate for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to consider and report on this bill, and we will be circulating a second reading amendment to this effect.
On 29 July 2019 the Minister for Finance asked the committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2019 federal election. This inquiry has commenced. It's invited submissions, with the first public hearing scheduled for 6 December 2019.
On the topic of this bill, I also want to touch on the broader issue of scam calls. Scam calls are the largest source of frustration and financial harm when it comes to unsolicited calls. The headline figures are well publicised. In April this year the ACCC revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018. I'll just say that again: in April this year the ACCC revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018. That is a lot of money. Of course, we know from stories in the media that often the most vulnerable in our society are targeted. This is an increase of $149 million over what was reported for 2017. There were 177,000 scam calls reported to Scamwatch in 2018. This is up from a figure of 91,000 in 2014. No wonder seven in 10 Australians do not believe enough is being done to protect them.
The growth in scams and the unsolicited telephone calls which often precede them is an assault on the integrity of our numbering and communications system. Furthermore, this illegal practice is an incursion on the privacy every Australian has the right to enjoy in their own home. This has been recognised around the world, and different jurisdictions are trying out their own ideas. The United States is implementing technical standards to verify caller ID integrity to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing—that's where people just run through lists and lists of phone numbers, hoping that they're going to get a hit.
In the United Kingdom, British Telecom introduced Call Protect, a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on a scam blacklist from reaching households. This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent, with over two million UK households signing up in the first three months. Again, that reduced nuisance calls by 65 per cent, so it's obviously been a very successful system. The UK has also trialled handset technology in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people across the UK. A key group who are disproportionately affected here are dementia sufferers, who have been identified by doctors as being at risk from nuisance callers. Now, isn't that a terrible thing? People suffering from dementia are already very vulnerable, and they are disproportionately affected and targeted. In New Zealand, the telecommunications industry has established a scam prevention code. So there are clearly some options available—each of which has its own advantages and difficulties—that have worked in their respective jurisdictions to cut down the number of scam calls people are receiving.
What perplexes many Australians is that on the one hand they see the government acting forcefully to rush through poorly drafted encryption legislation, and on the other hand, when we have nearly half a billion dollars being robbed from citizens every year and our elderly and vulnerable parents being harassed in their homes nearly every day, the same government is not acting with the same level of urgency. This will come into focus this week in this bill, and again Labor acknowledges Senator Griff's work on this. But we need to look at the prevalence of scam callers and the constant nuisance and potential misery this brings to the community, which is of utmost importance to many Australians and especially those in vulnerable groups. Despite being in power for over six years, the Liberals are only just beginning to put together a plan, after repeated warnings the problem was getting worse. We look forward to the Australian Communications and Media Authority outlining in December how it plans to tackle the issue as part of its report on the Scam Technology Project.
I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:
At the end of the motion, add "and:
(a) the bill be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for inquiry and report; and
(b) further consideration of the bill be made an order of the day for the first sitting day after the committee has presented its report".
I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019, which presumably was designed to stop instances such as those where we saw almost six million people spammed by Clive Palmer in the lead-up to the last election—ironically, at one point with a text message saying he would ban unsolicited text messages. Irony is clearly dead in that scenario. It's a very welcome bill that we will be supporting when the time comes; I understand that it's not coming on for a vote today. I note the amendment moved by Labor providing for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to examine the bill. We'll be supporting that further examination as well.
This bill allows members of the public to unsubscribe from unsolicited political text messages and also from other unsolicited messages, which we think is also a fair enough step. It's pretty outrageous that we saw folk like Clive Palmer spamming so many people—thankfully, with little result, although arguably we now have the government sitting on the benches that they're sitting on partially as a result of such campaigns by Mr Palmer. But 5.6 million people received those text messages from him—numerous text messages, on a whole range of topics—and there was no ability for them to unsubscribe. It's no wonder that there were more than 3,000 complaints by people saying, 'I want him to stop texting me.' But they had no means to enforce that desire. This bill would remedy that, and it would require such text messages to include an unsubscribe function that then would have to be respected by the political party who received that unsubscribe request. That seems to me a fair balancing of the right to freedom of political communication and the right of people to not be spammed by Clive Palmer, so we support this bill.
The other facet of the bill which I thought was quite amusing was the requirement for folk to declare when they're actors and are not really tradies but are just paid to dress up as a tradie and pretend that they support whichever major political party is paying for that particular ad. Likewise, we think that's a really good transparency measure and will ensure that voters aren't deceived. There's an awful lot of need for truth in advertising—in particular, truth in political communications—and this is a small step in the right direction. There's a lot more work that needs to be done in that regard.
What's really needed, though, is genuine reform of the influence that big money has on our election campaigns. Are we to become America? There was some research over the weekend that showed that there's a direct correlation between money spent and seats won. That is a very scary prospect for this nation to be potentially heading down. There's no cap on spending and certainly no cap on donations. The vested interests and big corporate donors that line the pockets of both of the big political parties get a very good return on their investment.
We've looked at the figures, going back a few years, and for every dollar that fossil fuel—that is, big coal, big oil and big gas—donated to both sides of politics they got $2,000 in subsidies. Their donations were able to purchase policy outcomes from governments of the day, of either persuasion, thanks to that cosy relationship of, 'Gee, I'll make a donation to you, and, when you're in government, you can write me some subsidies, or I can write off my equipment faster than anyone else can, or I can get accelerated depreciation and diesel-fuel subsidies that nobody else can get.' What a very good return on investment for those big corporate donors! It's that sort of corruption of democracy that we think needs to be addressed. This bill is a great step in the right direction, but it doesn't deal with that more fundamental issue of how big money is buying our politics.
Since 2012, we've seen $100 million donated to both sides of politics—Labor, Liberal and the National Party. There has been more than $100 million in big corporate donations. Is it any wonder that disenchantment and disenfranchisement are at all-time highs? People don't feel like this democracy is for them anymore. They don't feel heard, they don't feel represented and they know they can't get the access that the big corporates can get. The money flows, the meetings are given and the policy outcomes flow. The rich get richer and the poor get done over. This is what needs to be fixed in our great democracy of ours. It has the potential to give voice to people's genuine concerns and help make their lives better. Instead, we have $100 million in corporate donations flowing to both sides. They get the policy outcomes they want. Everybody in here is very happy. Meanwhile, out there in the community, life's getting harder for people, and they're feeling like this democracy doesn't even speak for them anymore. It doesn't represent their interests, it doesn't help them and it's not for them. That's a cancer on our democracy, which we need to arrest.
The Greens have been campaigning for more than a decade now for limits on corporate donations. In fact, we think the fossil-fuel, alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries shouldn't be allowed to donate at all. We don't think that they should be able to buy outcomes that suit their profits, because their profits inevitably disadvantage everyone else. We think that this house of democracy is meant to be here for the people, for the community, for making decisions, in the public interest, that address climate change, fix financial inequality, redress the lack of affordable housing and finally end violence against women—and for all those other issues that are real issues for people out there in the community. We think that those sorts of issues should be what this parliament deals with, rather than the corporate outcomes that the big donors buy.
We've long been campaigning for a cap, or in fact a complete ban, on corporate donations by those particular interest groups—dirty money, if you like—and a cap on donations by everybody else—and we mean everybody else—of no more than $3,000 per political term, so essentially $1,000 a year. Big money should not have its dirty influence on our politics. Big money does not belong in our politics. This is not America. Our democracy is a precious thing. It should be treasured and it should be given voice to. Instead, we are seeing that big money is running this place, so we've long campaigned for a ban on those donations.
We need spending caps, and that harks back to the substance of this bill. If we'd already had spending caps then perhaps Mr Palmer wouldn't have been able to send his more than 5.6 million unsolicited and unsubscribable text messages to unsuspecting Australians. It's well documented that he spent upwards of $60 million in the election campaign and ran some very scathing ads, and he arguably delivered government for this mob over here. We don't think that big money should buy election outcomes. That's why we think there should be a cap on election spending.
There's also a real need to clean up the revolving door of lobbyists and politicians. I talked a bit about the access that vested interests and donors get in this place, but the lobbyists get an awful lot of access too. I don't know what sorts of promises they make, but often you find that people leave this parliament and end up working for those groups. And it's not confined to just one side of this chamber. There are examples on both sides of the chamber. Closing that revolving door between lobbyists and MPs will help restore public confidence that democracy is for them, is about them and is there to make their lives better; it's not just there to feather the nests of politicians once they leave parliament. They're the sorts of reforms that the Greens would like to see to our democratic system.
As one small step forward, we think this bill is very welcome. People should be able to unsubscribe from text messages, from political parties, that they didn't ask for, that they don't want, that are from a party that they may not support and that they want to stop receiving. It's just an absolute travesty that people were able to get spammed text message after text message when they wanted to unsubscribe but had no legal ability to do so. This bill is an important contribution to enabling voters to say when enough is enough. We think the flip side of that should be spending caps, for the reasons I've mentioned. Big money should not be able to influence election outcomes. An election should be about campaigning, it should be about policies and it should be about listening to the community and addressing their real concerns. We'll be supporting this bill and we'll likewise be supporting, if they come on for a vote, the amendment that seeks further examination of this bill through the JSCEM process and then the bringing back on of this bill for further debate and, hopefully, passage in due course.
I rise to make a contribution this morning on the bill being advanced by Senator Griff, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019. As outlined in the explanatory memorandum, the primary purpose of the bill is to provide consumers with more control over the receiving of unsolicited communications—those calls that you receive not from somebody you know but from somebody you absolutely don't know who's asking you to do something, to give something, to say something or to enact something. They have no former relationship with you and you often have to ask, 'How on earth did they get my number and why are they calling me when I'm trying to get the kids out of the bath?' Those are the sorts of questions Australians constantly ask, and they get very annoyed when they have no recourse. This bill proposes to achieve more control over the reception of those unsolicited communications by amending exemptions which provided entities such as political parties and charities with a degree of greater flexibility on unsolicited communications. No doubt the situation that allowed that was well intentioned at the time, but as technology changes and as sometimes business practices change we need to adjust the law to accommodate the realities that become apparent before our very eyes—or maybe in this case our ears.
The bill before the Senate proposes to make several changes. The first is to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable consumers who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving phone calls from charities. The second is to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an unsubscribe function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content. The third is to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require that voice calls communicating an electoral matter to a person must identify the use of any actors at the beginning of the call. The fourth is to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to make other consequential amendments.
It is important to state at the outset that Labor acknowledges Senator Griff has brought these proposals forward in good faith and seeks to address issues of legitimate concern to the community. Leading into the 2019 election, we saw Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party unleash on millions of voters a barrage of unsolicited text messages, many of which contained false and misleading claims and statements. Despite being on the Do Not Call Register and almost all wanting to immediately cease receiving the spam messages, Australians were swamped by texts from the UAP, aptly described by many as unsolicited election trash. You can understand the frustration. I'm sure many of my colleagues who were handing out in the course of the election were engaged by very aggrieved Australians letting us know how unhappy they were at having been so attacked by the detritus that came out of the UAP at the cost of Clive Palmer. This 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 Clive Palmer and the UAP. This was a scale of attack on Australians' right to privacy of a kind we have never seen. It was a tsunami of unwanted and illegitimate claims that were foisted on good Australians who want to take their civic duty seriously and engage in the voting process with facts and information that help them make choices that will impact their lives and the lives of their families and of people they love.
Furthermore, the scale and frequency of the operation led to widespread community concern which prompted over 3,000 complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the regulator overseeing spam and unsolicited communications, from consumers. However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority was unable to act as the messages are not within its remit. They do not offer goods or services; just false information and an imposition. Clive Palmer plain refused to stop sending the text messages, despite wide public anger from the almost one-third of voting Australians who were bombarded by the messages. Whilst the conduct of Mr Palmer goes to issues much broader than this bill, it's well-established that Clive Palmer was willing to spend whatever was necessary, in his mind, to undermine Labor. When his advertising campaign began in 2018, the advertisements attacked both the Liberal Party and the ALP, but, following a preference deal with the coalition in January 2019, Clive Palmer agreed that in the final period of the election campaign he would switch his attack, and his considerable millions, to be exclusively against the Labor Party.
Being an individual of high wealth, his ability to leverage legislative exemptions in relation to electronic messaging and then use this to wage a misinformation campaign for the primary purposes of protecting his own financial interests is obviously an issue of significant concern, particularly when you think that the scale of the investment Mr Palmer made in electing this government is on the public record as being in the vicinity of $60 million. When I went to school and I learned about democracy, I was appalled that ordinary people used to be unable to vote, that only people with money got to vote and that it took a lot of reform to reach the state where it was one vote, one value. That basic tenet was absolutely overturned by the action of Mr Palmer in this nation. It was a historic moment of gross manipulation of information in the public place, where one man's wealth was able to buy a swathe of votes. One vote, one value; each of us as equal Australians—that is what is at risk if the behaviour of Mr Palmer is allowed to continue.
He's not the only one who has sought to use financial influence in this place. On 25 September 2019, ACMA also issued a formal warning 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 by the telemarketing standard. I've said before and I say again: Australians value their privacy. Like people all over the world, we're not particularly thrilled to be woken up by political calls in the early hours of the morning.
The constant flow of illegal calls from overseas scammers is also ever present in the lives of Australians, particularly older Australians, who spend a great proportion of their time at home. I very clearly recall a conversation with one of my friends, who was talking about her concern for her mum. Recently widowed, her mum, despite having considerable support from the family, was targeted by phone calls, frequently around dinnertime, and she would sit on the phone talking with people from overseas. She ended up buying all sorts of things that she didn't need or want. In her grief, in her loneliness and in her kindness in talking to other people, she was being scammed of significant amounts of money and being exploited. We don't want that to continue. I know that even my government office is swamped by calls from scammers, often purporting to be from the NBN or the ATO. They come in nearly every single day, and this is a common experience for Australians these days.
Clearly the accumulation of these different issues—combined with the intensity of the election campaign as waged, particularly, by Mr Palmer—has just drained the goodwill of ordinary Australians. They've had enough. They've had a gutful, as we might say. In a world where concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information receive almost daily attention, supercharged by the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and social media, it's important that the parliament remain responsive to such developments and concerns. We are worried about scandals such as that of Cambridge Analytica, where ultrasmart algorithms are slowly classifying humans into their most basic political and commercial wants and needs and stripping them of their wider humanity, all for the purpose of getting a vote or a sale.
For those who don't understand how data is scraped, it's just information about you. Every time you get an app on your phone or Google Maps is following you around or Siri's listening in, there's information being gathered about you. Information is being gathered about us all. We're complex and interesting human beings, but people have figured out that all this data we're generating is money in their bank. They're getting the data. They might call it pretty dirty, but they scrape it, they clean it up, they provide some analysis on it and they sell it on. I would be shocked if there were a person in this room who is not impacted in that way by how data is used. When data can pinpoint you and really ramp up the things that you're concerned about in an inflammatory way—especially when they purport to tell you the truth but it's actually lies told by an actor—we've got a big problem. It's got to stop. Things need to change.
The Do Not Call Register is one tool relied on by many Australians to reduce the number of unsolicited communications they receive. This register is, in effect, a secure database where individuals can register their Australian telephone number, and, once registered, a number will stay on the register indefinitely. Organisations such as telemarketers then need to wash their calling lists against the register to ensure that the numbers that are on the register are not contacted by them. It's important to note, however, that, when the Do Not Call Register Act was established in 2006, it contained exemptions—important exemptions, probably for very good reason at the time—for charities, for religious organisations, for educational institutions and for political parties. These types of callers were permitted to bypass the register, but they were contained by a requirement to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, which stipulates that a telemarketer or researcher can call you only within a particular limited time; stipulates the information that they have to give you at the start of the call and the information that they have to give you if you request it; and stipulates that they must terminate the call immediately if you ask.
Charities in Australia continue to provide valuable services in the community and rely on having various options to conduct fundraising activities. Just in the last couple of weeks, we've seen—with the crisis of the bushfires across this country but particularly up and down the east coast—that there has been a great call on Australians to provide support for our fellow Australians, and charities have had a vital role to play in that. There's a place for this, but there needs to be further containment. Nearly half of the major charities are members of Fundraising Institute Australia. That institute has its own code of conduct and claims to set the bar higher than the industry standard. It is important to understand what the impacts of any proposal for changes on charities would be and how this would impact on their ability to look after the vital needs in our community and do what they do: raise funds that can be distributed to places where there is great need, often at very short notice.
Political parties and candidates also provide voters with information that they can use to inform their voting behaviour. Electronic communication is one of those key channels, and it's certainly fair to say that this is, at times, intrusive and disruptive. It reflects in some way the overall rough and tumble of democracy itself. But it's very difficult to think about people making informed choices without some contact from the parties that are seeking their support.
Senator Griff's bill deserves respect and due consideration, and for these reasons Labor considers it would be most appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to consider and report on this bill. I believe that Senator Kitching has indicated that we will be circulating a second reading amendment to this effect. On 29 July 2019 the Minister for Finance asked the committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2019 federal election. The inquiry has commenced and has invited submissions, with the first public hearings scheduled for 6 December 2019. We believe it would be wise to wait for the inquiry to examine and report on this issue before we move on a legislative prescription.
I also want to touch on the broader issue of scam calls, which are increasingly becoming a plague to members of the public and business. You could say that scam calls are the largest source of frustration and financial harm when it comes to unsolicited calls. This year in April the ACCC revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million—that is, $489 million was scammed from Australians in 2019. That was bad; it was so bad that year. We can see the scale of the increase in scams operating. In 2017 the cost was $149 million. So, reported losses to scamming went up from $149 million to $489 million. What about the unreported ones where people were too embarrassed or ashamed to report what happened to them? It's truly a dramatic rise in the exploitation of Australian people via the use of a telecommunications device. We know that scam artists are getting craftier; we know they're getting more effective in their thievery. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from over 91,000 in 2014. It's really no wonder, then, that seven in 10 Australians do not believe enough is being done to protect them. Australia does need a clamping-down on these scammers and protection for the lonely and the vulnerable and remote and unlucky Australians who fall victim to scamming.
The growth in the number of scams and the unsolicited telephone calls which often precede them is an assault on the integrity of our phone system. Furthermore, this illegal practice is an incursion on the privacy of every Australian. Every Australian has the right, and should continue to have the right, to safety and quiet enjoyment in their own homes. This has been recognised around the world, and different jurisdictions are trying their own ideas. Does this government have a plan? No. Just like in so many areas of public policy, there is no plan. The US is implementing technical standards to verifying caller ID integrity to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing. In the UK, British Telecom introduced Call Protect, a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on scam blacklists from reaching households. This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent. I think Australians would be pretty happy with that level of reduction in assaults on them and their household. Over two million UK households signed up in the first three months of that program in the UK. The UK's also trialled handset technology in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people across the UK, such as dementia sufferers, who have been identified by doctors as being at particular risk from nuisance callers. In New Zealand, the telecommunications industry has established a scam prevention code.
Fiona Cameron, the chair of the scam technology project of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has described trying to fight the scourge as 'a bit like playing whack-a-mole'. Australians were cheated out of half a billion dollars last year alone, and we need a strong and comprehensive response to manage these scam artists. There are clearly some options available to this not-interested government. There's work being done out there. There are effective policies being implemented in other jurisdictions, and they have some considerable advantages. Perhaps they have some difficulties, too. That's why we need to have a further inquiry into this matter.
What perplexes many Australians is they see the government really acting forcefully to rush through poorly drafted encryption legislation, yet, when we've got nearly half a billion dollars being robbed from citizens every year and our elderly, vulnerable people being harassed in their homes nearly every day, that same Liberal-National party government are not acting with any urgency. Despite the fact they've been in power for over six years now, the Liberals still have no plan. That's despite repeated warnings of danger.
Labor would like to see the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examine the proposals contained in Senator Griff's bill, and Labor will be circulating, as I said, a second reading amendment to that effect. Our response needs to be comprehensive, measured and robust enough to remove scam artists from the system, root and branch. (Time expired)
I join my colleagues in rising to speak on this private member's bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019. I'd like to start by thanking my South Australian colleague Senator Griff for bringing these issues to the Senate for debate through this bill today. The bill proposes to make some changes which would provide consumers with more control and transparency over the receipt of unsolicited electronic and telephone communications from political parties and charities by removing several longstanding exemptions.
The bill before us proposes to make several changes. It seeks to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable consumers who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving phone calls from charities. It seeks to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an 'unsubscribe' function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content. It seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require voice calls communicating an electoral matter to a person to identify the use of any actors at the beginning of the call. And it seeks to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to make other consequential amendments.
Labor acknowledge, as my colleagues Senators O'Neill and Kitching have already said, that Senator Griff has brought forward these proposals in good faith and that he is genuinely seeking to address issues of significant concern to the community. We acknowledge that. We, too, understand that there are many Australians out there who hold concerns about these issues, especially in regard to electronic communications containing political content. During political campaigns and debates, it is crucial that the Australian public are informed about who is trying to persuade them to think or to act in a certain way and that people authorising political matters are held accountable for the material broadcast in instances where proper attribution is absent or the source of political advertising and messaging is hidden and has the potential to compromise the contribution of political communications to the political and democratic process.
For the purposes of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, 'political matter' is defined very broadly in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to mean 'any political matter, including the policy launch of a political party'. Guidance as to the sort of material that may constitute political matter is provided primarily through the Australian Communications and Media Authority's decision-making, reflected in reports of political matter investigations. What constitutes political matter is an objective test and is determined on a case-by-case basis by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, but the balance that we find can often be a fine one.
In the lead-up to the 2019 election, we saw Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party unleash an unacceptable barrage of unsolicited text messages to unsuspecting voters, many of which contained false claims. Those messages 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 these text messages from Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party. As of March 2019, the population of Queensland was five million, so a population larger than the state of Queensland received these text messages.
This prompted over 3,000 complaints from consumers to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, who is the regulator that oversees spam and unsolicited communications. In responding to these concerns, they noted that under current laws political parties are free to send campaign material as long as that material is not commercial in its nature. As a spokesman from the Australian Communications and Media Authority at the time 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.
There are clearly challenges here that require consideration given the sheer volume of messages involved. On 25 September 2019, the South Australian Liberal Party made robocalls to households across the Adelaide Hills over two consecutive mornings at 6 am, when these calls were supposed to be made at 6 pm. After the first round of calls went out, the Liberal government issued an apology over the very embarrassing and disruptive blunder which rudely woke so many South Australians early in the morning, and they promised to fix the problem. However, less than 24 hours after their apology, the Liberal state director had to apologise to listeners for a second time on ABC Radio ADELAIDE for sending out the same robocalls, again at 6 am.
Residents in South Australia were rightly frustrated by this. They were rightly frustrated. Then, they rightly called for a ban on these robocalls to vent their frustration. We heard reports from Karen from Adelaide, who's sleep was disrupted just after 6.30 in the morning. She described the incident on ABC Radio ADELAIDE:
My husband's mobile went off so he raced out of bed and sure enough, it was a robocall.
… I was dozing back to sleep and then my mobile went off so we scored it twice this morning and I actually did the survey.
Normally I wouldn't do it but I was so angry this morning that I decided to give Mr Marshall and the Liberal Party a bad rating.
I suggest it was a bad rating that, after those robocalls, they certainly deserved.
Many senior Liberal ministers were forced to admit to the blunder and apologise to the South Australians affected, with one senior minister stating, 'No sensible person would be commissioning polling or robocalling at 6 am.' Well, that's the public's expectation for sensibility as well, but it's an expectation that certainly wasn't met in this instance.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority formally warned the South Australian division of the Liberal Party for making these robocalls during prohibited calling times in the early hours of the morning—well before what is permitted by the telemarketing standard in this case. The Australian Communications and Media Authority states that penalties for telecommunications breaches range from formal warnings to fines of up to $250,000. I have to say, it seems that in this instance the South Australian Liberal Party probably got away with what could be called a slap on the wrist.
It's no secret that South Australians and Australians are not impressed by, and indeed get frustrated with, these occurrences—not just in my state, with the Liberal Party's robocalls at 6 am, but nationally, and not just in politics but generally with unsolicited calls. The influx of unsolicited calls from overseas scammers only serves to compound this frustration further. Research by CHOICE last year found that 89 per cent of Australians received at least one unsolicited call in a six-month period and 25 per cent of people receive unwanted calls from charities on a weekly basis. Of those Australians surveyed, five per cent said they received unwanted and unsolicited calls on a daily occurrence. On top of these statistics, it is not surprising that seven in 10 Australians do not believe enough is being done to tackle nuisance and scam calls.
As some of my colleagues have said during the debate, it's often senior Australians who are particularly vulnerable to the barrage of calls. Seniors are often more reliant on landlines and are more likely to be home during the day. They may also feel reluctant to hang up on or abruptly fob off a caller collecting charity donations. The chief executive officer of National Seniors recently stated: 'We are hearing from our members that the calls are making them anxious and that they are reluctant to answer the phone.' National Seniors collected stories from older Australians affected by unwanted calls, especially from charities, and found that people are avoiding answering their phones or considering disconnecting their landlines and that in some instances, shockingly, family members are moving in with elderly relatives in order to protect them from these unwanted—and, at times, aggressive—unsolicited phone calls seeking donations. I've witnessed my own parents-in-law take these calls and the frustration and sometimes worry that they can cause.
Labor acknowledges the importance of Australians having better control over what unsolicited communications they receive and from whom, especially for more vulnerable groups in our community. In a world where concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information receive almost daily attention, supercharged by the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and social media, it is important that the parliament remains responsive to developments and concerns. When technology is moving especially fast and personal data is becoming more and more valuable, responsive, well-researched and strong policies are necessary. However, it is also important to note that political parties and candidates provide voters with information they use to inform their voting behaviour. Electronic communication is one of the key channels through which they do so. This is important communication.
The Do Not Call Register Act was established in 2006 and prohibits making unsolicited telemarketing calls or sending unsolicited marketing faxes to members on the register. It sets out the main remedies for breaches of the act and requires the Australian Communications and Media Authority to establish and oversee the Do Not Call Register and to investigate breaches. When the Do Not Call Register Act was established it contained exemptions for charities, religious organisations, educational institutions and political parties. These types of callers were permitted to bypass the register, but they still need to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, which stipulates when a telemarketer or researcher can call you, what information they have to give you at the start of the call, the information they have to give you if you request it and that they must terminate the call if you ask.
Our charities provide hugely valuable services to our community and rely on having various options to conduct their fundraising activities. The value of our charity sector is demonstrated by the five in six Australians who give to not-for-profits and the $143 billion given in the last year, most of it through the generosity of the Australian community. The esteem in which this sector is held is demonstrated by the size of the charity workforce, which employs one in every 10 Australian workers. The not-for-profit sector and charities, social enterprises and community organisations also provide so much of Australia's social infrastructure. As of March 2018 there are more than 50,000 registered charities in Australia competing for donations from the Australian community. Nearly half the major charities are members of the Fundraising Institute of Australia, which has its own code of conduct and claims to set a higher bar than the industry standards.
However, Australians, who are certainly generous and generally hugely supportive of the charity sector, aren't immune to frustration from the telephone calls that they receive canvassing donations. As Jim from Perth described on ABC talkback radio:
When they ring me, I tell them that they are invading my privacy and that I do not respond to these phone calls. I also ask them to take my name off their lists.
We in this place need to work with the charity sector to understand and ensure that any proposals for change do not undermine their viability to serve their community. It is absolutely essential and important that we support the charity sector in Australia and that we encourage the generosity and giving nature embedded in our Australian values and culture, but we also need to support Australians who feel frustrated by the status quo.
More broadly, the driver of complaints about unsolicited communications to consumers both in terms of volume and in terms of harm is illegal telephone scams. In April this year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018, an increase of $149 million on 2017. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from over 91,000 in 2014. Scamwatch statistics now show that in this year alone nearly $30 million has been lost to illegal telephone scams, with over 60,000 reports made to Scamwatch. Of those 60,000 reports, approximately 10,000 have been made from residents within my home state of South Australia.
The age group most vulnerable to illegal telephone scams is those aged between 55 and 64. Whilst the issue of illegal telephone scams is not an issue for the objective of this particular bill, it is something that we need to see the government focus on as an immediate priority to better protect Australians, especially those most vulnerable to these types of telephone scams.
For these reasons, Labor considers it would be appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to consider and report on this bill. We absolutely understand and agree that the issues raised in this bill by Senator Griff deserve due attention and consideration. We also believe that there is a more robust process in which we can better capture the wider issues that a bill like this should ultimately consider.
On 29 July 2019, the Minister for Finance asked the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2019 federal election. In a media release in September, the committee stated:
Political advertising on social and traditional media is being investigated by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters as part of its inquiry into the 2019 Federal election.
The changes in social media, traditional media and smart phones have significantly changed the way we're exposed to information, the way we access information and the way we publish information. Digital media has become our most active source of media, yet the regulatory framework hasn't kept up with the significant and rapid changes we are seeing in this area. The 2019 election made these gaps especially poignant. The committee has opened and invited submissions, and the first public hearing is scheduled for 6 December 2019. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I will be keeping a close eye on the submissions and ideas which come out of our hearings as we listen to feedback from Australians. I expect that there will be many different ideas on the avenues and approaches we can explore in order to move forward in protecting our democracy from these new changes.
The growth in scams and the unsolicited telephone calls which often precede them is a very serious issue. This illegal practice is also an incursion on the privacy every Australian has the right to enjoy in their own home. This has been recognised around the world, and different jurisdictions are trying out their own ideas—ideas which we should be giving consideration to in a debate like this and in the consideration of legislation like this. For example, in the US, they are implementing technical standards to verify caller ID integrity, to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing. In the UK, British Telecom recently introduced Call Protect, which is a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on a scam blacklist from reaching households. This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent, with over two million UK households signing up in the first three months. The UK has also trialled handset technology in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people across the UK, such as dementia sufferers, who have been identified by doctors as being the most at risk from nuisance calls. In New Zealand, the telecommunications industry has established a scam prevention code. There are many options like these and others which the Australian parliament could also explore. Each of these options, of course, will have its own advantages and difficulties in design and implementation, but that's what we should be considering in detail and in depth.
What perplexes many Australians indeed is that they see the government acting forcefully to rush through poorly drafted encryption legislation, and yet, when we have nearly half a billion dollars being robbed from citizens every year, especially senior Australians, and vulnerable people being harassed in their homes nearly every day, the same government, this government, is not acting with the same level of urgency. And, despite being in power for over six years, the Liberals have only just begun to put together a plan—despite repeated warnings that the problem was getting worse.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has singled out combating scam calls as a top consumer priority for the commission. We, on our side of the chamber—Labor senators—are calling on the government to show the same level of seriousness to this issue here. We look forward to the Australian Communications and Media Authority outlining in December how it plans to tackle the issue as part of its report from the scam technology project.
As our interaction with and exposure to online digital media changes and changes rapidly, we must make sure that the parliament continues to protect our electoral and democratic processes from digital and social media manipulation and disinformation. Our dependence on digital media platforms has come to the forefront of debates across the globe, especially its effects on elections and democracies. Although of course this is a global problem that needs to be addressed on a global scale, we too in Australia need to be inquiring and looking into ways in which we can effectively tackle this problem at home through our own legislative framework and through our own public policies.
It is true that mass digital technology provides platforms for greater political engagement than has ever been possible before. This not only creates a platform for both greater voter engagement and policy discussion but also poses significant threats. So I urge everyone—senators, members of parliament, everyday Australian citizens or anyone concerned with the legislative framework around new-age media, digital platforms and old policies that need updating in this industry—to make a submission to the electoral matters committee inquiry into the federal election.
Again, I would like to note and fully acknowledge that Senator Griff's proposals are serious and have been well considered by him in their substance. They deserve our consideration, debate and discussion in the Senate. I thank senators from all sides of this chamber for contributing to that debate and having this discussion. I know Centre Alliance has taken a special interest because of what happened in South Australia with the Liberals' robocalls. I acknowledge that, but it is important for legislative frameworks to strike the always challenging balance between the rights of consumers and the ability of political parties and charities to communicate with the public. To do this properly, the bill and the measures within it must be properly scrutinised and consulted upon. Labor senators would like to see the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examine the proposals contained in Senator Griff's bill, as we believe that is the appropriate forum for these matters to be considered in depth. I note my colleague Senator Kitching has distributed amendments to that effect, and they are amendments that I will be supporting.
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.
Today I also make a brief contribution to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill. I thank Senator Griff for his good intentions in bringing this legislation forward and for the fact that he seeks to act for the benefit of his constituents. I do completely understand the level of frustration that many Australians feel. It's acutely felt in my home state of Western Australia. I'm sure senators in this place will have received the same unrelenting phone calls that my office has. Coinciding with the rollout of the NBN, my office receives multiple calls per day from providers asking us to join with them to adopt the NBN. Leaving aside the complexities of the fact that we don't even manage our own contracts, and that there's no-one in the office to sell that particular product to, my office has resorted to simply saying: 'We've got the NBN. This is an office. Thank you for your call.' I've taken these calls myself, and they are indeed unrelenting, if you spend the day at home. I no longer have a home phone at home; I rely on my mobile. Is it any wonder that more and more Australians find themselves in this situation as the only way of truly opting out of telemarketing phone calls! So I do understand the purpose of the bill in providing consumers with control over the receiving of unsolicited communications.
The inflow of illegal calls from overseas scammers is appalling and has been ever-present in the lives of Australians. We have some particular cohorts of Australians who could be vulnerable, spending a greater proportion of their time at home and perhaps not being as exposed to the sense of caution that many people now have when it comes to these kinds of phone calls. The accumulation of these different issues, combined with the intensity of the election campaign, has truly exhausted the patience of many Australians, who have had not only the day-to-day calls but also the polling robocalls and the phone calls during the campaign. We understand that, in a world where there are concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information, this is supercharged by the proliferation of digital platforms and social media.
It is key that this parliament remain responsive to such developments and concerns. We know that the Do Not Call Register is relied on by many Australians to reduce the volume of unsolicited communications they receive. It is in effect a secure database where individuals register their Australian telephone number. Once registered, the number will stay on the register indefinitely. Telemarketers need to 'wash' their calling lists against this register to ensure those numbers aren't contacted. We understand that, since that register was established, religious organisations, political parties, educational institutions and charities have had an exemption, with callers permitted to bypass the register. However, they are still expected to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard, which stipulates when a telemarketer or researcher can call you, what information they have to give you at the start of the call, the information they have to give if you request it and that they must terminate the call if you ask.
As Senator Brown highlighted, charities also provide valuable services to the community and rely on having various options to conduct fundraising activities. Many such charities have my mobile phone number and use it, and I like to give, as often as I am able, to those that call. Nearly half of the major charities are members of the Fundraising Institute Australia. It has its own code of conduct and it claims to set a higher bar than the industry standard. I'm very keen to understand what the impacts of any proposal for change would be on such charities and on their capacity to serve the community.
I have to say, as a member of a political party and as a candidate, that I value incredibly the conversations that I have had with voters during election campaigns—and, indeed, outside of election campaigns—to engage with them about the issues that are important to them. I can tell you that a great many of those calls are valued and welcomed. And if they're not, what do I do? I get off the phone quickly. That's what you do. It is very common and appreciated to spend half an hour on the phone talking through policy questions—be it climate change, be it tax, be it local education, infrastructure or pensions; you name it. It's incredibly valuable to many people to be able to have a conversation with their MP, with their local candidate, with someone who's simply interested in having a conversation with them about what they value and what they believe in.
As Senator Brown has also highlighted, it's important that we hear from the committee that's inquiring into the last election and that we hear what the committee's conclusions are about the nature of communication and the conduct of the election. I do note that electronic communication has been more and more dominant during election campaigns, and it is fair to say that, at times, it can be intrusive and disruptive—as the overall rough and tumble of democracy itself has proven to be. But many people find that electronic communication makes life easier and helps them stay in touch and stay informed.
In that context I welcome Senator Griff putting forward these proposals for attention and consideration. He has argued that these amendments strike a better balance between the needs of parties and charities while giving people more control to unsubscribe from updates that don't suit their interests. But I believe that it is important to get the balance right. We want quality information in the hands of Australians when it comes to election time. We don't want them subject to a vacuum of information or only information that suits their siloed, predetermined interests. That's not democratic debate. So it is indeed appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to inquire into and report on this bill. I understand Labor is looking to move a second reading amendment to that effect.
The Minister for Finance asked the committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the 2019 election and, as I understand it, it's scheduled to have its first public hearing in December this year. I would really like to encourage Australians, if they've got views about the conduct of the election—whether it be getting unsolicited text messages, whether it be polling at home, whether it be doorknocking or whether it be unsolicited phone calls or solicited phone calls—to please reach out to the committee and make sure that they get their voice heard.
We shouldn't be viewing debates on these issues out of the context of broader scam calls. We've seen incredible frustration, as I've highlighted already in my remarks. In April this year, the ACCC revealed the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018, an increase of some $149 million since 2014. I've seen friends and family get sucked in by such calls, and it is a dire situation. So is it any wonder that people become more and more hesitant to answer the phone at home or that they simply let it ring out? All too often, it's not family calling, it's not someone calling to catch up, it's not something important—it's a scammer or it's someone trying to sell you something. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from an incredible 91,000 in 2014. So it is no wonder that Australians don't believe that there's enough being done to protect them.
It is an assault on the integrity of our numbering system that there has been this massive growth in scams, that they are still getting through to households today and that scammers can even get hold of the telephone numbers of Australians to do this. It has been recognised around the world and in different jurisdictions that people are trying out ways to fix these issues. The US is implementing technical standards to verify caller ID integrity to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing and, frankly, that would be fantastic. One of the very annoying things that are relevant to these kinds of debates that's been raised with me recently in the electorate of Canning is the fact that the local florist is competing with people who advertise themselves as being a local florist—they advertise a local phone number and you ring that local phone number and get put through to what could be a local number, but, in fact, you know—