It shouldn’t really be any great surprise that the National Party is willing to support the sale of Telstra, despite the widespread opposition of people living in rural areas (and the rest of the country too). After all, every National Party Senator has voted to sell part or all of Telstra a total of 5 separate times since 1996. The only question mark was whether new Senators Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash might have been different from all the other National Party Senators. There’s some extra money this time to sweeten the pill, but it looks like the vote will be the same once again (although Matt Price suggests it’s not a sure thing yet, as does this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald).
As a reminder:
- on the 11th December, 1996, all National Party Senators voted in favour of selling one third of Telstra, enabling the Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill 1996 to pass the Senate by 34-32 with the support of Brian Harradine and Labor renegade Mal Colston.
- on the 11th July 1998, (on a Saturday night at 8.19pm), all National Party Senators voted in favour of selling the next 16% of Telstra. However the final vote on the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 1998 was tied at 33-33, thus negating the Bill, when Mal Colston voted against.
- on the 21st June 1999, all National Party Senators again voted in favour of selling the next 16% of Telstra, enabling the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 1998 to pass the Senate by 37-35 with the support of Brian Harradine and Mal Coslton.
- on the 30th October 2003, all National Party Senators voted in favour of selling all of Telstra, although the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 was defeated by 34-26.
- on the 30th March 2004, all National Party Senators again voted in favour of selling all of Telstra, although the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 [No. 2] was defeated by 35-30, thus creating a trigger for a double dissolution election to be called.
I noticed a quote from Barnaby Joyce in this piece by Matt Price which gives some sign that he’s aware of the nature of those he’s dealing with.
“I don’t know what the people think but I think we’ve screwed something out of them (the Libs) we were never going to get,” he admitted in idle pre-interview chatter. “(But) we’ve got to see the paperwork, the Libs are great at doing stuff and when it’s time to see the paperwork it’s completely different.”
Senator Joyce seems to have learnt Step 1 in how the Howard Government makes ‘agreements’. I hate to disillusion him, but there’s many more steps to go. I can tell him from bitter experience that when it comes to breaching agreements, there’s a lot more left in the Government’s armoury.
Step 2 is, even if you get the paperwork to really reflect your agreement, they just try to ignore the bits they don’t like. Step 3 is where they start cutting money out of existing expenditure until it equals the amount of extra money they promised they would spend. Step 4 is to spend that ‘new’ money on something completely different from what was promised (see Step 2). Step 5 is to refuse to administer the laws and regulatory protections that were put in place as part of enabling the original agreement. Step 6 is to tie you up trying to address Steps 2-5 while they gradually change and remove the legislative and regulatory protections that were put in place as part of enabling the initial agreement. Step 7 is where all the relevant Ministers have changed to other portfolios and the new Ministers say they are not bound by old arrangements. If you haven’t given up by this time, then Step 8 is to insist that the use of the word “will” can actually be interpreted as “will not” in certain circumstances, or that the paperwork reflects views that have now been superseded by the intervening election. Eventually, if they get tired of being hassled about it, they’ll just say there never was any paperwork and you must be getting it confused with something else.
I’ve seen independent Peter Andren and Barnaby himself say that Telstra could be the National Party’s GST – which I presume means a big chunk of their constituency could see this as betraying them on a core issue. I don’t know if that will be the case, but given that Barnaby himself has said it, (indeed he used the GST analogy to me when I met him for the first time out at Birdsville) I’m a bit surprised he looks likely to give in so quickly and cheaply. I guess Barnaby has gained more than the other National Senators Boswell, MacDonald and McGauran sitting around him who have just rolled over and put their hands up 5 times in a row without getting anything in return apart from a few nice words.
I support efforts to try to negotiate constructive compromises if it is possible to get an overall result which will clearly move things forward, but if what is under discussion involves compromising a fundamental principle, then it’s best to just forget it. Unless you can get a major fundamental advance on a key issue, you’re just getting bought off with what in the long-term will turn out to be beads and trinkets.
Barnaby had his own analogy for this when he said that the problem with selling Telstra was that it was akin to a man with a shotgun who keeps threatening to kill your dog.
“Then one day the bloke turns up with a shotgun and kills your dog. And then you know you’ve got a big problem, a dead dog and a bloke with a shotgun. That’ll be Telstra for us. The day we sell it off, the problem will be huge.”
I must say I’m not sure I fully understand what this is meant to mean, but I know it’s not good.
Of course, negotiating with Government can involve the prospect of agreeing to something which may intrinsically not be very good, but still better than what would occur if things stayed unchanged. This was basically the situation the Democrats were in when I was negotiating with the Government about improvements to their Medicare package in 2003-04. I can’t see how this applies to the situation with Telstra, as Barnaby is in the position of stopping it being sold altogether.
I’ve been close to or directly involved in negotiations with Government a number of times over the years, and I can assure Barnaby that if the Government is under strong political pressure to resolve an issue, then you have a lot more time that you think to make a decision. The media attention and frenzy that can develop around negotiations does create an atmosphere where you feel you have to decide quickly, but it’s just one of those illusions that can befall you when you’re in the cocoon of Parliament House. If you set your bottom line in your own mind first (which should at a minimum match your honest assessment of what would constitute a definite advance on the status quo/no deal option) and the other side won’t come up to it, then it’s not really that hard to walk away. If it’s that important to them, they’ll come back to you.
A few days of the media calling you dithering is nothing compared to a few years of your supporters calling you stupid or a sell-out (not to mention the opportunity cost and the permanent consequences for those people negatively affected by what you agree to). Of course, the problem for Barnaby is that, for all his talk about representing the Qld Nationals and not the Coalition, he is in the end part of the Government. That means his ability to really just say No is a lot less than he suggests. This is why having an independent Senate, not controlled by any party, is so much better. If the Government knows you really are capable of saying No, you’re in a much better position to negotiate and make a balanced impartial judgement about what is best for the public (as long as they also know you are capable of saying Yes as well).