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.