Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019

25 November 2019

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.

Why?

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?

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