Thursday, 26 February 2009
The Telecommunications Amendment (Integrated Public Number Database) Bill 2009 is a piece of legislation that the coalition supports. The Liberal and National parties will cooperate and support the bill and do what we can to bring about the goals of this bill, although the parliament needs to be realistic about what this bill actually does.
The bill is a key input to an early warning system, examples of which are being trialled and developed in the different state and territory jurisdictions. This bill will not of itself bring about a nationally coordinated early warning system to deal with disasters and emergencies, but it is a key input. It is a key input in that it makes a very important database available to those who are developing and implementing those systems. It does that by amending the Telecommunications Act 1997 to allow access by an emergency management person, as authorised by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, to the information contained in the integrated public number database. The IPND is not something that many people would be aware of. It is actually a bringing together of telephone numbers and their addresses for billing purposes, both for fixed line and mobile services. It is available from Telstra and is managed and supervised at this time by Telstra. It has a very important role in enabling communications competition and access to a single integrated telecommunications system, recognising that there is a range of service providers and users.
That database contains very crucial information. At the moment, the law provides for access to the database primarily for law enforcement authorities, and state and territory governments can access it. There is a narrow definition under which access can be provided. At the present time, as I mentioned, it is largely used for law enforcement purposes, but it has been used in part and on some occasions for the purpose for which it is being facilitated today. A couple of things need to be said. Firstly, this database is key. Access to it is crucial but it is a key input to the goals that this bill seeks to pursue. Secondly, the idea that it can be accessed is one that we all support. We also recognise that the range of circumstances for which access can be provided will vary, and that is certainly something that will be discussed at greater length.
The other thing that this legislation does is extend the lawful scope of the reasons for which the database is accessed beyond a fairly narrow definition at the moment—that is, to lessen a serious or imminent threat—to a broader definition of an emergency which enables its use for warning purposes. The Attorney-General’s role, as the Commonwealth go-to person in relation to gaining access, is to make sure that there is a legitimate need for an emergency service responder to have access and that the proper safeguards are in place to make sure this valuable database, which is a very crucial database, is not used for other purposes, either within the agencies themselves or by secondary disclosure. There are criminal penalties of up to two years imprisonment for inappropriate disclosure, which I think is entirely appropriate.
The thing that we need to talk about, though, is how it will be used. The integrated public number database, as I said, is a crucial input to an emergency warning system, but there is work to be done to make an early warning system operational. As many in this parliament know, and as members of the public are aware, this has been a subject of some debate for a number of years. What is at the heart of this is just how to use it. Since 2004, when the previous government, through COAG and other avenues, thought about making sure that this database was available and that work progressed on the establishment of a nationally consistent early warning system, there has been some discussion and some disagreement about what that system should look like, how it is managed and how it is paid for. What we in this parliament all agree on, though, is that this system is needed. I believe we all support the idea of a nationally consistent approach, and we all believe that those involved should get on with it. In my view, and from discussions with the Attorney-General, there probably is a pile of documentation in Commonwealth and state departments that you could barely climb over about the difficulties in getting what is essentially a perfectly simple, straightforward idea into operation. There is a need for, I would say, mutual adjustment, greater collaboration and a greater urgency in overcoming a number of technical and, in some cases, not terribly significant difficulties in giving effect to the goals that this database seeks to pursue.
I believe that there is goodwill on all sides of this parliament and across the country to get on with that work, and I urge officials and those in positions of authority to go about that collaborative work to make it happen. The Commonwealth is rightly ensuring that it cannot be seen to be holding up that work, and this bill seeks to make sure that a key input is available. But more work is required. I endorse the remarks in the second reading speech, delivered by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, pointing out the urgent need to get on with the implementation and the bringing into operation of an early warning system. The bill canvasses a number of things—and quite rightly so—within the Commonwealth jurisdiction. I have touched on the issue of having the database available, the need to broaden the circumstances under which it can be lawfully used and the way in which privacy and other important safeguards are put in place. It also takes account of what we can learn from the use of the database by requiring those who exercise the database to activate some kind of telephonically based emergency warning to report on their experiences both to the Attorney-General and to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. That second element with the Australian Communications and Media Authority recognises that the telecommunications infrastructure is at the heart of bringing this idea into operation. The way in which an early warning system is developed and activated can have enormous bearing on the way in which our telecommunications systems function. In fact, the telecommunications infrastructure itself needs to be taken into account in the design of those systems.
The Liberal-National Party strongly support this bill, and we offer our assistance, our cooperation and our support for the goals it seeks to pursue. But it is not just about the work of this parliament. Earlier, I touched on the history of this matter and how it dates back to COAG discussions in 2004. Even at that time, the idea of having the database available was overwhelmingly supported by those whom the restrictions involved, but it was also recognised that there was some work still to be done on implementing a nationally consistent system. The COAG documentation from the April 2004 meeting recognises that natural disasters were investigated—the way in which we as a nation could respond to them—and, in large part, this was prompted by bushfire mitigation and management reporting after the horrendous fires in Canberra. What we have seen is that these bushfire threat warnings were recognised as being able to add something to the tool kit available to the emergency responders and that the goal of having some kind of standardised emergency warning system was something that should be pursued. The structure of that system, though, needed much more development, and the expert input was welcomed and taken on board.
We have seen some discussion of the way in which various government agencies would bring their input to the task—the way those responding to threats would bring their expertise to recognising where a danger may exist—and then what the nature of the warning should look like. We have heard how the Bureau of Meteorology and other agencies had input that was also crucial in the formulation of responses, including not only the need to activate a ban and its character but some standardisation of the advice that is provided so that people receiving it know what to do. There was a shared commitment to move forward through the Australian Emergency Management Committee to develop draft guidelines to use for a standard emergency warning signal when lives and properties are threatened. Some time has elapsed and the Attorney-General—in fact, attorneys-general from both sides of this parliament—has shared with me the recognition that quite an amount of interaction followed from that day.
Where we had got to in 2008 was a need to really move things forward. The proposition of a nationally consistent community emergency warning system was again recognised as being the desirable way forward, and some of the differing points of view from state and territory agencies were again aired, the issue being that we really needed to get on with it. As late as October 2008, COAG again signalled that there was some urgency in moving forward and again referred to a nationally consistent telephone based community emergency warning system. That nationally consistent system is the goal. This bill makes available a key input to achieving that goal, but we in this parliament should recognise that more work is required and give our support and our encouragement to those state and territory and other officials who are involved in the development of that work. There are some differences in views across the continent about what that system should look like and how it should work. But we all share the view that we need to get on with it, and this bill before the parliament represents a clear statement that all that the Commonwealth is able to do is being done and that we need to collaborate with other jurisdictions to achieve the goal of a nationally consistent early warning system.
The devastating bushfires in Victoria are a tragic reminder of the havoc that can be wrought by nature. We are firmly of the view that all steps should be taken by all levels of government to reduce the risk of such devastation occurring again and to make sure that people are as well prepared as they can be to deal with the disasters, emergencies and risks that may confront them. We on the coalition side again express our deep sympathy to the victims of the bushfire crisis and reassure the Australian public that we will do all we can to assist the communities to rebuild and recover.
In addition, we need to make it clear that there is a bipartisan commitment in the Com-monwealth parliament to get on with the work of putting this emergency warning system in place. Since these most recent horrific disasters there have been further public statements in support for the idea of a national early warning system and its important role in communicating to people not only the risks that they may be exposed to but—hopefully—the behaviours that we feel those potentially affected should undertake. This bill does not go into the detail of that system, but I put on record the coalition’s view that developing that system and making it operational is something we all need to work collaboratively toward.
We know that there have been some examples of systems being trialled in jurisdictions across Australia. In my own state of Victoria—and I should recognise that Victoria has been one of the strongest advocates for a nationally consistent warning system—that sentiment has been put into effect by trialling a fixed phone line system in 2005 and by more recent testing looking at other technologies. I know that Western Australia has also been actively pursuing a system which the Western Australian government believes suits its purposes. Through those trial exercises a number of obstacles have been identified—they can and need to be overcome.
One of the things that we are also mindful of is the recent hot spell in South Australia, where again we saw an example of the system being utilised. The South Australian government collaborated with at least one of the carriers, Telstra, to send a one-off heat stress message that was distributed by SMS. Many people in this parliament would be aware that extreme heat events can cause the risk of heat stress or heat injury which can be fatal or extraordinarily debilitating. A message was put out to mobile phones via SMS in South Australia as a community service and as a public health initiative.
In that exercise Telstra collated data about mobile phones that had reported to its base stations over the preceding couple of days. That was one way of collecting data not linked to the physical address for which a service is billed but actually trying to take account of the mobility of the Australian community and the mobile phone technology which may see someone in a far different part of this vast country or in another part of the state, well away from where the billing address may be recorded for their mobile phone. The system actually soaked up those numbers and then used that collection of mobile phones reporting to Telstra’s base stations to send out this public health message. That seems a good idea. What we do know though is that in some cases people were well outside South Australia. There were reports of heat stress warnings being received by people in other countries, and there was one example that I am particularly familiar with where that message did not come through until seven or eight hours later and was received in the middle of the night when most of the heat stress risk had passed.
These are some practical examples that need to be recognised and factored into the planning for a nationally consistent system. But this bill itself does not claim or seek to set up that system holus-bolus; it seeks to ensure that a crucial input is available, which is this IPND—a master telephone database for telephony devices, both landline and mobile, linked to their billing address—and I have touched on an example of where that may present some shortcomings.
The coalition has been actively pursuing the early warning system and has, as I illustrated earlier, sought to give effect to that goal through COAG. But the national system remains the goal, notwithstanding the good work and the progress being made by individual states and territories. The idea of recognising the different telephone technologies is something that needs to be addressed, particularly as we saw with these recent bushfires in my state of Victoria, where often there are areas frequented by visitors—daytrippers and the like—whose billing address for their fixed line or their mobile service is well and truly away from the areas of concern. Indeed, I recounted some of the story of a personal friend, David, in the parliament earlier. He was at his farm in Yarck and feeling very isolated in that the mobile phone system would not carry voice calls. We were sending him information via text message, and that would work its way through, but the congestion on the mobile phone system seemed to be an impediment. That is one of the reasons why ACMA needs to be involved in this exercise. Having a mass broadcast message go out over the telephony system risks clogging up that system for emergency 000 calls, and ensuring that the 000 emergency response calls can still find their way through what may be a very congested telecommunications system is something that needs to be taken into account in a design sense and also in making the idea operational. That is why I welcome and recognise ACMA’s valuable input in that role.
The other thing that we need to talk about is different kinds of messaging. This system is often characterised as an electronic doorknock or a reverse 000 system—or a reverse 911 system, as it is described in the United States. If you are in your home and you have a fixed-line service and the infrastructure supports the use of that fixed line then it will serve some purpose. But, as we have seen with recent events, particularly in high-fire-risk areas where there may be shortcomings in the telecommunications system anyway, relying on a single technology and hoping that it has the reach and the range that is needed is something that certainly needs to be revisited. That is why there is a need for the collaboration that I referred to earlier, not just between the governments of the Commonwealth, states and territories and their agencies but between the many other service providers, including the ABC, whose valuable contribution has been referred to by colleagues in this place as part of the condolence motion.
The other question to touch on is what constitutes an emergency. We have had vivid examples in recent weeks of fire threat, and people would of course automatically see that as a circumstance that would warrant a warning notification. Floods, cyclones and the like are other examples. I note that other countries’ systems—for example, codeRed in the United States—actually go further to talk about hazardous chemical leaks, missing children, issues around explosions or even an ongoing criminal event that represents a risk to people. Those systems can then be used for other purposes. That is why there is a need to have a conversation and sort out the differences between the states and territories over just what constitutes the kind of emergency that warrants the notification and what that notification would look like so that the receivers of that information actually know what is expected of them in light of that advice.
I draw from my involvement in chairing the Australian delegation on the Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system. We went to Thailand just days after that horrendous tragedy and saw not only how important it is to get the technology right but also how important it is to get the art of communication right—that is, communication conveying meaning. The recipient needs to know what to do and how to make sense of the messages they receive. That was seen as equally important as getting the message out there so that the community’s behaviour was informed and activated by the message. So any kind of comprehensive system needs to take its audience into consideration so that when a warning is put out people know what it means. If there are escalations in warnings, people need to know what each one represents. To support that notification system we need public education and advice about what they mean.
We can look to other areas within our own country—for example, the very extensive system in downtown Sydney. That functionality enables voice communication and the like and very explicit and situationally relevant advice for an area of this vast continent. That degree of sophistication is helpful, but it obviously has with it some very significant cost implications. Trying to get a nationally consistent system that fits the purpose for our continent and the circumstances in which we may need to exercise it needs to be worked through very carefully.
I would again like to acknowledge the Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin. He has been very consistent about the need for a nationally consistent system and the need, as recognised by the Attorney-General, for a national dialogue to bring about the practices that would accompany that system. I recognise the Victorian government’s ongoing work and commitment to this goal—a goal which we at least have clarity on through this bill today.
Even as recently as the last few days in Senate estimates we have again seen a reaffirmation that a more integrated national approach to emergency management or a national emergency plan to deal with catastrophic disasters would optimise efforts and address fundamental gaps such as the lack of an effective arrangement to deliver community warnings. Again, there is this national consistency theme emerging and a recognition that the telecommunications network is a part of that. In the government’s second reading speech in support of this bill, it has hung out the carrot that, if such national consistency can emerge, additional resources will be made available to help put in place those arrangements. That is something that the opposition welcomes. Again, we reiterate our encouragement to those involved in the detail and in the dialogue of setting up a nationally consistent system. We urge them to move forward thoughtfully to achieve that goal.
The other issues that emerge are about operation management. In recent weeks I have read with interest how in Georgia in the United States questions are being asked about why a system like the one described, which was in place in the counties affected by a tornado, was not actually activated. Those issues around the operation and management of the system are very important.
The other issue is the technology that is utilised—and we have talked about that briefly and the need for the IPND to be a key input—and the need to look beyond the billing address link to the fixed-line and mobile service and to recognise that mobile phones may be a long way from their home. That is something that needs to be addressed in the design of the system. My friend and colleague the member for Gippsland in his contribution on 23 February touched on just how important reliable information is to people faced with the dangers of an emergency like the bushfire that caused such devastation in his electorate and how there is a need to integrate that with other communications technologies and devices. The member for Mayo in his contribution on the condolence motion again talked about the urgency of getting in place a nationally consistent early warning system and just what kind of conditions might lead to its activation. My friend and colleague, for whom the parliament shares a great admiration, the member for McEwen also made reference to the need to get on with developing and implementing this system, and quite rightly drew attention to the capability of the communications infrastructure to deliver the messages that are put out over that system.
I wonder whether it is timely for the government, given the difficulty it is having with the National Broadband Network tender, to revisit the OPEL project, which I think would add something in terms of the capability of the communications system in the areas that are currently underserviced by telecommunications infrastructure. I think that the OPEL project would be an important step forward in making sure that the hardware at least is in these areas to support the implementation of the system.
Finally, in the few minutes I have available I want to touch on the other part of the bill. The bill includes a second part beyond the IPND’s use for emergency management systems; it will be available for some of the call-routing technologies that are currently used in the phone system. This is for location-dependent carriage services where the location of a caller is recognised and then, because of that location, the call is routed to a particular destination. Currently, that behaviour is going on but there is some uncertainty about the lawful basis for it, in that there is a licence provision saying it is appropriate but not an explicit legislative provision to authorise its use. The bill has a part that clarifies that point. The legislation respects the fact that the current arrangements provide that unlisted, silent and mobile numbers are not part of that arrangement. That respect will continue, but the bill does clarify those points.
With those remarks, I again emphasise the coalition’s support for this bill. The Liberal and National parties are very keen to see an emergency management notification and warning system operationalised in a nationally consistent way across the continent. We offer our support to the government and whatever assistance we can provide. We urge those involved to overcome some of the territorial issues, technical debates and jurisdictional impediments. We need the best of all of us to get this system in place and get it in place urgently. We all recognise the benefits that would flow from it. I commend the bill to the House.