Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fantasy land

When I was growing up, fantasy land was just one of the places we could be taken to by Disney on a Sunday evening. I gather it is the name of a section of the theme park as well.

In Australia in 2010, fantasy land has become the province of journalists writing about telecommunications. The latest has been an effort by Malcolm Colless that reports that the PM has "roasted" Stephen Conroy over the NBN implementation study report.

Malcolm is a senior and respected industry figure who after a career as a journalist pursued a long career in management at News Corporation. Prior to returning to his craft as a columnist he was basically News’ chief lobbyist. I should declare an interest that I (at Telstra) worked closely with Malcolm in the lead up to Telstra and News doing the Foxtel deal.

It seems mighty strange that it is Malcolm Colless rather than a member of the press gallery who has received this tip about the PM and the Minister. It is probably about as reliable as the information we were told Senator Fielding had that Telstra was close to a deal. Or before that that the wholesale only carve out in the exposure draft NBN Co legislation was all about putting pressure on Telstra.

The pity of all this is that the Telstra management and Board do have an incredibly difficult task. As Jennifer Hewett reported in the Oz, Telstra really does need a deal here, but the Board has managed to get itself totally spooked about what their legal risks are.

The Board should though be asking management whether they are making their job easier or harder. While the CEO and Chair changed the members of the senior management team most directly involved in working out policy and strategy have not, and they mostly seem to be people who were relatively comfortable with the high risk game that Thodey's predecessor pursued. I know if I were a Board member I'd be encouraging the management to not be engaging in a strategy of brinkmanship. Every one of these stories merely increases the risk to them.

The only member of the team on engagement who is different is Conroy's former staffer, Tim Watts. His Facebook page says he has an up-coming Op Ed piece in the Australian - but it is more likely to be about one of his other myriad interest, including racism which I believe I blogged about before.

A similar critique is possible of the other side of the equation. There don't appear to be many points at which Conroy's Department has covered itself with glory. The ANAO report on NBN mark 1 reflected that there was advice the Department should have given the Minister sooner, I personally have criticised the fact the process was set up to create "competitive tension".

The malaise in our public service is widespread according to Robert Gottliebsen. Actually, from my own brief experience that malaise has spread from the Parliament down. The malaise has its source in the use of both Question Time and Estimates as political grandstanding rather than genuine holding to account.

The supposedly apolitical public service spends anywhere between 5 and 20 percent of its time being prepared for questions that are supposedly about "accountability" but are really about "politics". This creates the potential consequence that risk management becomes risk avoidance.

Unfortunately the media does not help, being almost totally devoid as it is of any capacity to provide policy analysis. Instead they report their views on who is "winning" a contest, be that between the parties or, in this case, between Telstra and the public interest.

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