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Monday, 07 April 2008 12:03

Aussie Comms Minister seeks input on consumer representation

Communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has invited all stakeholders in the telecoms market to a forum in Canberra to discuss ways in which consumer representation in telecommunications policy development and in the industry in general can be improved.

The move follows a promise made by Conroy in his speech to the Atug conference in March   when he said: "I want to look at ways to give consumers a more powerful voice in the development of telco policy and in particular in industry codes.

Announcing the forum, to be held on 1 May Conroy, said: "I want to give consumers a more powerful and effective voice in the development of telecommunications policy...I am...interested in exploring a range of options that will provide the strong voice consumers need. This could be along the lines of a federated peak body and substructure as proposed by the Productivity Commission in its draft report, Review of Australia's Consumer Policy Framework (December 2007)."

In its draft report the Commission recommended that The Australian Government should provide modest additional funding to support: specified research on consumer policy issues, distributed on a contestable basis; the basic operating costs of a representative national peak consumer body; and such additional funding should be subject to appropriate guidelines and governance arrangements to help ensure that it is used effectively.

However in telecommunications consumer involvement in industry self regulation is a issue of particular concern. In his Atug address, Conroy said: "If industry self regulation is to remain a viable form of regulation for telcos it is incumbent on the industry to ensure that the interests of consumers continue to be adequately represented and protected. Unfortunately there are signs that the interests of consumer are falling behind in the current environment of increasing competition and product complexity."

These initiatives come at a time of considerable dissatisfaction among consumer bodies with the current telecommunications self regulatory regime. A comment posted in response to iTWire's report of Conroy's Atug speech indicated that at least one consumer body is deeply unhappy with its ability to participate in the development of telecommunication codes and standards. CONTINUED

In a lengthy posting, Nicole Lawder, CEO of the Deafness Forum of Australia, said that her group had recently written to Conroy expressing a number of concerns about consumer involvement in Communication Alliance: the peak telecommunication industry body which undertakes development of numerous technical standards and codes of practice for telecommunications industry players. Many of these are registered by the ACMA making conformance to them mandatory. She detailed a number of specific issues on which the Forum was unhappy with Comms Alliance processes.

Asked to respond to Lawder's comments, Comms Alliance CEO, Anne Hurley, said: "The issues raised are largely related to the processes used in the development of codes and standards as well as our consultative mechanisms. There are a multitude of processes and models that can be debated, but the focus of our work is outcomes. As Minister Conroy recently pointed out, development of codes and standards has become exceedingly time consuming. We share his concern and are keen to explore ways of achieving outcomes more quickly and efficiently, while maintaining ample opportunity for consumer engagement."

The Productivity Commission's review of Australia's Consumer Policy Framework. It was announced by then treasurer, Peter Costello, in December 2006. He noted that it would be the first substantial review of Australia's consumer policy framework since 1984 and said that the Commission had been asked to report on "ways to improve the framework to assist consumers to meet current and future challenges...[and] on ways to improve the harmonisation and coordination of consumer policy and its development and administration across jurisdictions in Australia, as well as ways to avoid regulatory duplication and inconsistency."

The Commission issued its draft report  in December 2007. In a response to that draft, Choice (formerly the Australian Consumers Association) took issue with the policy, enshrined in the Telecommunications Act, to rely as much as possible on industry self regulation. Choice called for the creation of a guide for the development of industry codes that should include "guidance to policy makers about the conditions when codes are or are not appropriate (eg they are less appropriate if only partial industry coverage can be achieved) and the best legislative framework for supporting codes."CONTINUED

Choice claimed that "not all consumer codes have been developed with adequate consumer input," and it singled out the premium mobile services industry code as one where "industry gamed the process for its own advantage." Gordon Renouf, Choice's manager of policy and campaigns, told iTWire that, after 18 months developing a code through TISSC, "AMTA did not like it so they threw it out and came up with one of their own."

Choice has called for the creation of a generic set of principles and procedural requirements for codes that affect consumer contracts or conduct in consumer markets. Renouf said: "What we would like to see happen is for the Commonwealth Government, through the PC review and its response to set standards for code development across all industries. At the moment we have a silo approach. In finance we do it one way, in telecommunications another and in energy another.

"There are good aspects to all of these but there should be a generic good practice code development model under the leadership of the Commonwealth and appropriate changes made in each industry to bring those in to line."

Choice also wants changes to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to bring it into line with dispute resolution bodies in other sectors. Renouf said "If you look at the dispute resolution services in the finance sector, you have very clear rules that the governance structures are balanced between industry and consumers with an independent chair which is not the case with the TIO. It has a supervisory board made up entirely of industry people and a day-to-day body which is balanced."

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