Senate committee passes buck as it waves Unsolicited Communications Bill away

Proposed legislation would hit charities too hard, committee says, and concerns about electoral communications should be referred elsewhere.

Angry bearded businessman annoyed with phone call in office

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The Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications has recommended the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019 not be passed.

The Bill, proposed by Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff, would amend the Electoral Act to require election-related calls to identify the use of actors at the beginning of the call, allow people on the Do Not Call register to opt-out of calls from charities, and amend the Spam Act to force political parties to allow citizens to unsubscribe from communications. The Bill had previously lapsed when Parliament rose for the May 2019 election.

Writing in its final report on an inquiry into the Bill, the committee said the concerns around electoral communications should be referred elsewhere.

"The committee acknowledges the concerns of some in the community in relation to unsolicited political communications, particularly during election periods. However, the committee is of the opinion that consideration of such matters is best undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM)," the report said.

"The committee notes that the JSCEM is currently inquiring into all aspects of the 2019 Federal Election.

"The elements of the Bill in relation to introducing an unsubscribe function for unsolicited political communications and for the identification of actors in political telephone campaigns would be better dealt within the context of the JSCEM inquiry."

Beyond the political realm, the committee said it considers existing spam communication protections adequate for consumers, but that the changes would create too big of a hit to charities.

"The committee commends the measures taken by industry leaders to reform the sector and encourage best practice in engaging with current and potential donors," the report said.

"While the committee is empathetic with the broad intentions of the Bill, it considers that, if enacted, the Bill would unduly affect the charity sector.

"The committee therefore recommends that the Bill not be passed."

When giving the Bill its second reading, Griff said his Bill would give some power back to the people.

"It seeks to give consumers and voters more control over unsolicited electronic and telephone communication from political parties and registered charities, which currently enjoy broad exemptions from laws that otherwise prohibit or limit telemarketing calls and spam messages," he said last year.

"This problem was highlighted most recently when Mr Clive Palmer spammed voters nationally with SMS messages, prompting hundreds of complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"It is not the first time this [has] happened and, unless the measures in this Bill pass, it will not be the last. We know voters are unhappy about receiving these SMS messages, but ACMA is largely powerless to act on these complaints."

The inquiry into the Bill was completed without a single public hearing, based solely on the 16 submissions made to it. Two submissions were for the changes proposed, while the majority of submissions from charities were against the Bill.

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