Thursday, February 25, 2010

NBN Co legislation

Oh dear. I thought telco policy had moved on from the days when every piece of policy was scrutinised through the lens of its implication for telco privatisation, but today it appears it is still the case that commentators only look at the implication of NBN policy from its impact on Telstra.

The Government yesterday released exposure drafts of the NBN Co legislation. Firstly that is a great step and much better than, say, the Howard Government's final Telstra privatisation Bill wich was introduced with no consultation and gave industry one day to prepare for a one day Senate hearing.

But both the Oz and the SMH report the provision in the Bill that the Minister can authorise NBN Co to sell dierectly as a threat to Telstra. The conclusion is reached because of references to Government Departments.

The reality is that, firstly, Government Departments are big customers in terms of revenue but very poor in terms of profit - simple because they have been big enough to get most of the benefits of competition that exist so far. Secondly the real concern here is that the ability to do things like e-health and e-education shouldn't be impeded by the need to deal with service providers. This isn't about Government using the NBN to connect to its premises, but to citizens.

Meanwhile I note in industry newsleter Communications Day the speculation on the fate of the other current bill, the one that does seek to split Telstra. They write in part;

The government’s desire to separate Telstra originally appeared set to split the coalition, with Nationals Senators Fiona Nash and Barnaby Joyce advocates of separation while Liberal colleagues rallied against any split. However, the Nationals are now set to vote on coalition lines with Joyce in shadow cabinet and both Senators determined to force the government to reveal numerous secret documents relating to the original NBN process. CommsDay understands that Joyce and Nash could still push for a Telstra split at a later date – but not until Conroy releases the McKinsey/KPMG NBN Implementation Study, due to be delivered to the minister by the end of the week.

I can fully understand that the new world order of the coalition prohibits them splitting on the issue. But the new world order should perhaps contemplate a change in their approach to communications policy, just as it did a change on climate change policy. As it stands today the coalition has no communications policy other than to say no, or perhaps that OPEL was better.

It is interesting to note that they never demanded an ANAO report on the cancellation of that contract. That's perhaps because they are afraid that not only will it find the Government was right to cancel it because the conditions precedent were not met, but that the ANAO would likely find that he contract should never have been entered into.

Meanwhile after the replacement of Minchin with Smith the coalition still hasn't progressed on communications policy. Conroy used to count the number of releases Minchin had come out with without a single policy proposal. Smith isn't doing any better.

Perhaps these were the kinds of people new leader Tony Abbott was addressing when he's asked them to "use their brains" at his policy roundtable on Friday. Not much chance of decent communications policy if (a) it is only Liberals, and (b) Henry Ergas is in the room.

Finally, the coalition seems to wrap themselves in a sanctimonious flag of demanding the release of certain documents prepared for advice to government. First it was the expert panel report and now it is the implementation study. In Government the coalition never released such documents. Holding Government to account means holding them to account on outcomes not second guessing the decisions.

I hope the Nationals find the courage to go to the coalition meetings and say that the cause of improved telecommunications to regional Australia is not advanced by an opposition who simply refuses to debate legislation, or opposes legislation such as structural separation (a long held National Party view) or fibre to the home (which was the core of the Page Centre report).

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