Where Indeed?

Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde asked a highly pertinent question in his newsletter last week: Where are all the Inquiries going?

Budde complains that over the years he has commented favourably on the outcomes of the various government-initiated Inquiries into the IT&T industry in his efforts to be positive and provide hope to stakeholders, including the Broadband Advisory Group’s national broadband plan; the Estens Report outlining the government’s long-term responsibility for regional telecoms, and the House of Representatives Report on wireless broadband which suggested stimulating the use of wireless broadband.

“All the reports made clear observations, offered sound recommendations and they all had widespread community and industry support — but, to date, the government has refused to act upon them,” Budde notes.

Budde, like many others, seems to be experiencing growing doubts over whether the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston — whom some love to characterise as “the terminally confused” — is even on the side of the industry.

But he also supports the perceptions of many that the real decision-making is entirely in the hands of PM John Howard and his sidekick Treasurer Peter Costello, who are both so ideologically committed to flogging off Telstra they are determined to put the kybosh on anything that might erode Telstra’s revenues and so lower its share price even further.

“An indication of where the government’s heart lies became clear when Richard Alston killed off the Structural Separation Inquiry,” Budde wrote. “By doing so the government took what was its most undemocratic action in the telco debate so far — that of denying the 70 or so respected organisations that had prepared submissions to this Inquiry the opportunity to discuss the matter, as part of a process that was initiated by the Minister himself.”

Budde makes an excellent point. It’s a standard ploy of governments to hold an inquiry whenever they wish to delay controversial decisions, avoid committing themselves to necessary, but unpopular ones or wound their political foes. When Labor was last in power then Industry Minister Senator Peter Cook came under fire on more than one occasion for holding new enquiries into subjects that those he was relying on to make submissions to might have been forgiven for thinking had already been thoroughly investigated. The BBC program Yes Minister frequently satirised the practice: Sir Humphrey Appleby was always advising his Minister, the Honourable Jim Hacker: “Never hold an enquiry unless you know the outcome in advance,” saying the idea is to ensure the person heading the inquiry is “sound,” in other words compliant, easily manipulable or prepared to find whatever you want him to find.

In fact, the practice of holding Inquiries as a way to avoid making real decisions seems to have become so endemic one can only admire the sheer persistence and resilience of those in organisations like the Australian Information Industry Association and Australian Computer Society who keep ploughing their energies and resources into making submissions.

But the decision to kill off the Structural Separation Inquiry is arguably an order of magnitude worse. It is becoming increasing apparent that this is a Government that still refuses to learn any lessons about the limits of privatisation, even after exposure of the disastrous outcomes from its failed whole of government IT outsourcing program, and even as it wriggles under the glare of the spotlight so recently cast on the human rights abuses which have grown from its outsourcing of detention centre management.

Actually, it should have been apparent well before the government announced it was abandoning the Structural Separation Inquiry in February that the Inquiry itself was purely a political ploy designed to embarrass the Labor Party.

Last year, Alston’s Opposition counterpart Lindsay Tanner issued a paper entitled "Reforming Telstra", which raised the prospect that a future Labor Government might seek a structural separation of Telstra into a network business and a services business.

Many industry analysts agree this was a silly idea, but Alston’s response was cynical at best. As if Sir Humphrey had migrated to Australia and was working on his team, Alston announced the Inquiry into Telstra’s structure precisely because he knew both the committee numbers and the practical impossibility of breaking up a privatised vertically integrated carrier would guarantee his desired outcome and put Tanner on the back foot.

Nonetheless the industry bit and submissions from concerned parties poured in, many of which would have required considerable thought, effort and cost.

Then Tanner announced Labor had abandoned the notion of carving up Telstra and Alston instantly pulled the plug on his Inquiry. Sorry folks, I know you went to a lot of trouble preparing submissions, but that’s politics.

Budde thinks Howard and Costello are fighting a losing battle in trying to protect Telstra from the effects of competition, since they can’t stop what is happening elsewhere in the world. “What they are doing is creating an environment that will be detrimental, not only to the industry and Telstra, but to the economy as well.

“Eventually Australia will have to catch up and Telstra could well be crushed in the process, as it is failing to invest in its Customer Access Network — due to the false sense of security provided by the current lack of competition. But eventually an Australian government will see the need to take steps to foster the roll-out of competing broadband networks in a market with significant pent-up demand.”

He has a point. Perhaps it is only when a government is prepared to finally concede that the only way to sustain the viability and competitiveness of the telecommunications sector is to open the existing infrastructure to all carriers on an equal footing that decent policy making in the interests of all Australians will resume.

But that would require both major political parties to take the politics out of the Telstra debate, and for this government, in particular, to abandon its ideological obsessions.

Until then, stakeholders will presumably continue to put their time and energies into Inquiry submissions that governments will graciously receive, and then ignore.