Telstra – railroaded, steamrolled or guillotined?

The biggest signal of an extremist government isn’t the policies they put forward, it’s the way that they try to implement them.

I’d have to say one of the phrases I am most suspicious of is “the ends justifies the means”. I’ve always instinctively felt this was a dubious notion. One of the sayings I remember from one of my better University lecturers is that “the means are the end”, which I took to mean that how you do things significantly shapes what you end up with.

The means being used by the Government to ensure the sale of Telstra, with the support (so far) of every single Coalition Senator, sends a big signal that they are not capable of responsibly handling the extra powers they have been given with their thin Senate majority.

I had the bizarre experience on Thursday of having to stand up in the Senate to give a speech on two pieces of Telstra legislation within a minute of them having been made public. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to assess them in much detail.

More absurdly, anyone from the public who wanted to make their views on the legislation known to the Senate Committee examining the Bills had less than 24 hours to do so.

The Committee held a one day hearing on the Friday, with 11 Senators – Labor, Liberal, Democrat and National – attending to ask questions. I listened to some of the proceedings from my Canberra office, but left it to Lyn Allison to carry the Democrat flag.

The regulatory regime surrounding Telstra is in many ways just as important as who owns it. This is a complex and contentious area which has proved to be highly problematic in the past. To railroad such matters through the Senate in the space of less than a week is just bad practice and a bad way to make law, even if you do think privatising Telstra is the way to go.

If you are interested in the issues involved, it is worth having a look at the transcript of the Senate hearing. It was a fairly spirited, although mainly good humoured affair, as can be seen from how things kicked off on the very first page.

The first witness was the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), who are charged with enforcing the Trade Practices and competition aspects of Telstra’s activities. The ACCC is meant to be an independent regulator, but they seemed to be picking their words rather carefully and relying on others to be more forthright in their concerns. However, even their evidence provided enough to demonstrate that there are big gaps in what has been put forward being proposed.

As the transcript shows, Labor Senators got 12 minutes of questioning, Government Senators got 12 minutes and the Democrat got 6. Absurdly, Senator Joyce, upon whom the whole legislative package seems to rest, was not able to ask a question of the ACCC at all (see page 13 of transcript).

Still, every attempt by the Senate so far to enable a more normal time frame to consider the legislation has been defeated by Senator Joyce, along with all his Coalition colleagues, so I’m not sure he can complain much. Given that there is clearly no reason at all for urgency – other than the Government’s burning desire to get the issue off the political agenda – I really do not understand why he hasn’t insisted on a reasonable time frame, especially given that according to news reports, he is again wavering in his decision as to whether or not to support the sale.

The Government still wishes to pass these Bills through the Senate this coming week. To do so, they will have to pass a ‘guillotine’ motion, which cuts off debate and forces a final vote by a specific time. Such a motion will not pass without Barnaby Joyce’s support. Frankly, I think people who support selling Telstra have an even greater obligation than those who don’t to make sure that all the surrounding laws dealing with regulating competition, service, pricing, and investment in infrastructure are done right. It is not possible to do that in the time frame the Government is trying to force on the Senate.

Despite all the ums and ahs, I’m fairly sure we will see a guillotine motion passed in the Senate sometime on Wednesday and the matter forced to a vote that day or early Thursday, when the legislation will pass by a margin of one person.

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  1. Perhaps Barnaby could be informed of one of the other really bad laws passed after a guillotine.
    I will never in my life forget the TAMPA legislation. And look at the horror and misery we are now coping with.
    I got a call tonight from Afghanistan.
    Strange that – apparently Roqia Bakhtiyari is an Afghan citizen and so are her husband and kids – how about that.
    Who the hell would have thunk?
    This family are only one of the many victims of the TAMPA laws – the laws that say no matter how bad an RRT decision is it cannot be tested in any court.
    So if the RRT wants to take the word of newspaper reports that cannot be tested and nothing else to hang a family out to dry, well they are allowed to.
    Fancy that. Even when it is found that the AFghan embassy told the minister 5 times that the Bakhtiyaris are Afghans, nothing is done.

  2. I’ve waited for this post with bated breath. I note on the news that Barnaby said that no one was willing to tell him to support or not support the legislation. I note since that the legislation says a fund of up to $2 Billion dollars and that he would not be supporting that legislation.
    As a regional and rural Australia resident, and thus a broad constituent of Barnaby’s though I’m in NSW I’ll tell him what to do. Vote against the current construct of the legislation.
    It is laughable to hear about all the faults in Telstra now from the politicians, the public has been bleating about it for years. It only further adds to the public’s cynicism that all politicians live in their own ivory towers.

  3. On the bright side, you ‘ll know the outcome as soon as the vote on the guillotine is called.
    Barnaby really does seem lost at the moment. Asking other people how they would vote is not a good sign.
    Personally, I think it’s a lot of grandstanding before Coonan gives another sweetener.
    If he was serious about the effects, he would have said “No” as soon as they allowed 24 hrs for submissions to the committee. That’s not reasonable, or possible, for most people and groups affected.
    That means he’s going to have to make his mind up based on the “years of discussion” already in the public domain.
    Pity about the detail in the “secret” government briefing. No chance to ask anybody about that.

  4. What has happened to Senator Fielding in all this- or does he now consider that the sale of Telstra is good for ‘families’?

  5. I have to admit to not having read a single well thought out argument FOR selling Telstra. I have my own opinions, yet I’m interested to hear exactly why the government thinks it’s such a good idea, beyond a 1 time cash payment and no longer having it on the books. I say this not because I doubt that such an argument exists, it’s just that this is not normally my area of reading material to search for.
    As someone who’s followed the debate closely, Andrew, I’m wondering if you’ve found such a beast to exist? Is there a well reasoned, logical argument, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it, for the full sale of Telstra out there waiting to be read?

  6. Olivia
    Senator Fielding hasn’t made any categorical comment on his final position on selling Telstra that I am aware of. If I had to predict, I would say he doesn’t have much to gain by being seen to support it, so if Barnaby is supporting it anyway (which I expect he will), then Fielding will vote against. However, we’ll all see for ourselves what will happen soon enough.
    However, last week Senator Fielding did join with all the other non-Govt Senators in voting against rushing the Telstra sale Bill straight on for debate.
    His speech was very short, so I’ll put it here in its entirety for your info:
    “The Telstra Sale Bill is an important bill for Australian families. It is too important to rush. It also involves a complex issue which requires careful consideration and debate. It is precisely because of bills like this that the standard procedures in this place allow a delay between the introduction of a bill and the debate on that bill. The Senate should only forgo this opportunity in exceptional circumstances. This bill is not such a case. There is no need for urgency, because the government itself has said that, even if this bill is passed, it is not going to sell Telstra immediately anyhow. A cynic would be entitled to think that the rushing of this bill has more to do with internal coalition dynamics than it has to do with public interest. Internal coalition dynamics are not sufficient grounds for stifling Senate processes.”

  7. Isn’t wonderful howard said that he would use his? majority in the senate in not an arrogant way. ANOTHER deceitful lie it seems.
    What is he and his very compliant – compliant or incapable of thinking for themselves or their electorate – party up too? Such a short time to debate such a intricate bill. Also the sale is worth billions and only a short time to understand it let alone debate it. Just what is this person who the Australian people do not really trust up too this time? numbat

  8. I am sorry, but I am totally fed up with Barnaby Joyce’s tokenistic approach. He says he is concerned about rushing through the sale of Telstra and then votes against a motion to delay the sale. He is just another politician who likes to hear the sound of his own voice in the media and doesn’t keep to his promises. He promised to oppose ANY sale of Telstra at the last Federal Election.
    All Barnaby Joyce is doing is trying to get more media attention. If he truly was concerned about what his constituents think about the sale of Telstra, he would have listened to them and opposed it like he said he would.
    He is just another opportunistic politician who likes the media attention (reminds me a bit of Bob Brown, except Bob Brown sticks to his promises.)

  9. I fully support the sale of Telstra, but I, too, have disquiet at the speed in which the Coalition have “rammed” it through the Senate.
    After the election, when it became apparent that the Government would have a majority in both houses, Howard pledged that the Government would have respect for normal proceses. It seems to me that it hasn’t in this case.
    For legislation as vital as this, an inquiry that lasts for more than one day is obviously required, if only to pick out the technical problems in the legislation. I quite liked Senator Fielding’s short but appropriate speech.

  10. Great blog entry! I managed to listen to one of Andrew Bartlett’s speeches on late Wednesday or Thursday afternoon. Aslo very good. I agreed with him that although we should be far from happy with Barnaby Joyce’s actions so far, we should not yet completely write him off, either.
    For my part I have written an open letter to Senator Barnaby Joyce on behalf of Citizens Against Selling Telstra ( It’s currently on the home page. If it is moved from there it should not be too difficult to find.
    One important point is that we should not consider it to be the end of the matter if the legislation gets through this week. It may still be possible to reverse the legislation, and even if it is not, it is important that all parlimentary representatives who vote in favour of the legislation must, this time, be held fully to account for the harm that their actions will inevitably cause.
    Anyone who wishes to help us block the sale of Tlestra, please get in touch.

  11. Leonard, left-leaning UQ economics professor John Quiggin has repeatedly argued that while full privatisation of Telstra in its current form is not his preferred option, the current half-pregnant situation is worse than full privatization. Do a search for “Telstra” on his site.
    He thinks, however, there would be a number of better options, involving splitting the company up.

  12. Andrew, you should be more than suspicous of “the end justfies the means”. It’s worse than dubious. It’s downright evil. It’s how murderous dictators think. Any conception of morality and human rights is based on the principle that the means must always be acceptable.
    P.S. Love the blog. I thought at first it must have been ghosted by your staff, but it actually looks like you write it yourself. Nice to know there’s at least one genuine person in Canberra trying to keep hard hearted $%^&@# like Howard and Ruddock honest…

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