A report into the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has delivered mixed results, finding that the organisation is appropriately representing consumers and interest groups, but risks fermenting anti-industry sentiment in public, while under-representing small business interests.
The mid-term review into ACCAN, undertaken by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) has found that overall, the group is performing well as a peak body representing interest groups and telco consumers.
The review found that ACCAN has established itself as a "well-regarded and effective organisation in representing the interests of consumers in the telecommunications sector", and went on to note that ACCAN has met each of its key performance indicators as laid out by the deed of agreement signed with the DBCDE.
The report noted that these achievements are significant, given "ACCAN's broad obligations to consumers, and the complex and dynamic nature of the telecommunications landscape".
Despite the praise, ACCAN's flaws were also laid bare.
The report highlighted complaints made by the Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) that criticised the way in which the organisation represents itself to the public.
In some areas, ACCAN has been accused of fermenting an "us-versus-them" feeling in the industry between consumers and telcos, particularly in the "Fair Calls for All" campaign.
The Fair Calls for All campaign saw ACCAN push for free calls from mobile phones to 1300 and 1800 "free-call" numbers with a media-driven, public advocacy campaign centred around a superhero-like mascot. AMTA and the Comms Alliance took umbrage with the campaign, as noted by the report.
"AMTA considered that such a media-orientated approach can create an aggressive 'us' versus 'them' environment, and contended that an adversarial approach is more likely to lead to consumer detriment if both parties cannot agree on an outcome.
"The Communications Alliance submission also asserted that ACCAN's industry approaches were sometimes adversarial, rather than constructive, and that ACCAN could benefit from working with industry more closely," the report said.
Most notably, ACCAN, in its role with the Comms Alliance, voted against the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code developed by the Comms Alliance last year. This was something that Comms Alliance CEO John Stanton noted in a speech last month.
The report cited ACCAN's defence of its engagement practices, and added that friction in the industry is nothing to be surprised about, as "industry and ACCAN will represent different interests".
"The review does not consider this disparity inherently problematic," it added.
One flaw that the review did find problematic, however, is the industry body's under-representation of the small business sector.
Several submissions highlighted the lack of small business representation within the industry body, a problem that ACCAN and the government have also noted. Also, with the Australian Telecommunications Users Group no longer in operation, and a marked increase in small business-related complaints coming into the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), the need to represent small businesses at an industry level needs to be a "greater focus" for ACCAN, according to the review.
"This [under-representation] is inconsistent with the government's intention in establishing ACCAN, and ACCAN should undertake measures to rectify this," the review said.
ACCAN is working with the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia to shore up the small business voice within the industry body, but it's not enough to satisfy the government yet.
"While this is encouraging, ACCAN needs to build on this work."
Despite the problems, however, ACCAN CEO Theresa Corbin is largely happy with the results of the review.
"We are pleased with the feedback from the government, regulators, industry and non-government groups that we are a well-regarded organisation that is effective in representing the interests of Australian telecommunications consumers," Corbin said, adding that the recommendations made in the review will be addressed as a matter of priority.