HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 24 FEBRUARY 2020
Imagine you're facing a heatwave and your city has just experienced the worst air quality in the world.
Now imagine you're facing those threats while living alone.
Now imagine that your only way of communicating is about to be cut off.
That was the situation that Canberra woman Jenelle Outhwaite faced last month when she learned the CapTel service that she relies on was going to be axed by the Morrison government. Like thousands of Australians, Ms Outhwaite has hearing difficulties and relies on this vital service for everyday communications.
I visited her in her Florey home with the shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, and Senator Anne Urquhart. Ms Outhwaite showed us how easy it was for her to use her CapTel machine to make calls and receive calls. She said she was devastated to learn that the Prime Minister and his government were going to cut access to this vital service without even consulting users like her. Ms Outhwaite said:
I am dependent on it.
She added that without the service she wouldn't be able to call anyone, saying:
I think I'd be down and out.
Janelle Outhwaite is not the only CapTel user affected in my electorate. An aged pensioner in Fenner recently wrote to me about his CapTel phone. He called it a ‘lifesaver’. He said it is ‘far superior to the government's proposed replacement system’, which he said was 'very much slower, difficult to use, significantly more complicated and discriminatory'. He described it as a '40-year-old system which is confusing and significantly slower to operate than the CapTel system it's supposed to replace'.
These are just two of the 3,500 people across Australia who use the CapTel service—3,500 people who use that technology to work and to stay in touch with friends and family. They rely on it to have a sense of safety and security. Were they consulted by the Morrison government? No, they weren't. They asked the minister to change his mind, but he wouldn't. In the end, it was the CapTel founder, Ultratec CEO Robert Engelke, who had to step in and provide an interim service to users.
I believe that access to the telephone is a right, not a privilege.
Mr Engelke went on:
I have been genuinely moved by the outpouring of heartfelt messages from Australians who are clearly distressed and frightened about living without CapTel. CapTel has been available for over ten years in Australia and I believe it is not acceptable to leave CapTel users without access to family, friends, employment, emergency services and the myriad ways that all of us use the telephone.
Let's be clear about what this means. This is an American CEO, based in Madison, Wisconsin, who is showing more compassion for hearing impaired Australians than is the Morrison government. As he described it, Australians who've been using CapTel were ‘distressed and frightened’. That's because CapTel is a straightforward service which uses transcribers to turn a conversation into text; to make it possible for hearing impaired people to immediately, in real time, see in text format a conversation which those without a hearing impairment would simply listen to. Jenelle Outhwaite demonstrated the service to us, and anyone who's seen it can immediately recognise what a valuable service this is.
The average age of a CapTel user is 82, and many of them are not immediately able to just pick up and run with the next technology. Older Australians deserve better than they've been getting from the Morrison government. They deserve better than the excuses and the blame game. They deserve better than attempts to blame the Public Service, the previous provider of the National Relay Service, the US technology licensee and even the former Labor government. Hearing impaired older Australians need a government that will take responsibility. We've seen this failure to accept responsibility in the case of the bushfires, in the case of the Australian economy and in the case of climate change. Those opposite aren't willing to do the right thing. They're not willing to swallow their pride and admit when they've made a mistake.
I commend the member for Perth, Patrick Gorman, for bringing forward this important motion today. I commend the work that the shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, and Senator Anne Urquhart have done in highlighting this vital issue for my constituents and 3,500 other Australians.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.