The Sale of the Century


You’ve got to hand it to Howard he’s finally done something to unite the nation, albeit in horror and disbelief. Friday’s take-out-the-trash announcement of the sale of around 20 per cent of Telstra, and the unceremonious dumping of what’s left of the Government’s controlling interest into the Future Fund, has brought brickbats from all sides. Business figures, communications experts, shareholders and public asset advocates have found common ground in their despair over what must surely be Howard’s most ham-fisted and blatantly self-interested move since … well, the Snowy Hydro backdown, or the dropped-like-a-hot-potato offshore refugee processing legislation, or the off-again/on-again conscience vote on stem-cell research.

Except, of course, this one’s worse because it’s not just bleeding-heart Lefties who disapprove. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who can state, with a straight face, that this option to offload some of the remaining publicly owned portion of the national telecommunications network at a rock-bottom price and park the rest in a stagnant government slush fund represents a win for anybody.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

For those shareholders who bought T2 shares for $7.40, the current share price of around $3.45, even with a guaranteed dividend of 28 cents this financial year, must stick painfully in the craw. And Finance Minister Nick Minchin’s weekend admission that the sale was timed to avoid the ugliness of selling shares in an election year was a particularly galling if refreshingly candid development.

But the blow to shareholders is not the crux of this issue. By half-fulfilling what he protests was one of his original election commitments the full sale of the formerly publicly owned national telecommunications network Howard is doggedly pursuing an obsession that puts him firmly at odds with the best interests of the Australian body politic.

What Labor’s Stephen Conroy labels ‘fraudband’ services in Australia are so far behind the world standard that our economic and cultural development is under threat.  Without adequate infrastructure investment in telecommunications, Australia will simply be unable to participate in the brave new world of internet applications that will change the way we work in almost every way communications, trade, media consumption, education. We desperately need more bandwidth now not in 2020, or when a privately owned international consortium decides it’s worthwhile investing.

We’re already lagging far behind the economic and cultural powerhouses of the world. While Australians pay exorbitant monthly fees to access woeful broadband providing grainy stop-start images on video streaming and freezes computers while downloading average sized files the UK is moving towards providing free wireless broadband at two megabits per second, and Japan offers broadband of 30 megabytes to urban users.

The educated consensus is that Telstra must be split, with the retail arm allowed to flourish under the leadership of Sol Trujillo by competing aggressively in the open market for customers, bringing communications prices down further; and infrastructure development and broadband investment retained as a public asset, guaranteeing investment in crucial nation-building networks.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s defence of the Government’s extraordinary bungling of communications development tells us all we need to know about its attitude to nation building and the public interest. Coonan was apparently sincere when she told Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report that ‘currently no one is complaining about the speeds of broadband in metropolitan areas.’

Let’s put aside the fact that plenty of us are complaining, vociferously and often we’ve got barely enough megabits to allow us a tantalising glimpse of what we could have if we lived anywhere else in the Western world and take Coonan’s arrogant and dismissive comment for what it is: an admission that the Howard Government is driven by nothing more than short-term self interest. As long as no-one’s complaining (at least, not loudly enough to represent an electoral threat) there’s no need to act.

The T3 sale is just the latest in a growing array of backflips and half-measures that expose the yawning chasm where this Government’s vision for our future should be. John Howard’s total focus on getting re-elected (and his lack of anything resembling vision) has been laid bare in recent weeks, as he and his worn-out Government prepare for another year of shameless pork barrelling and extended electioneering.

Even previously supportive pundits have had enough. Crikey‘s political columnist, Christian Kerr, spat the dummy a couple of weeks ago:

[Howard’s] boosters say that he’s a conviction politician. Yeah? When has he ever nailed his colours to the mast? A conscience vote on stem cells is suddenly on the cards. The migration Bill is pulled. He melted on the Snowy a few weeks ago. Look back to his time as Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer, when he wouldn’t fight for what we’re now told was his agenda all along.

Kerr issued a challenge to those ‘whiny’ Howard-haters who, in criticising the PM’s policy or ideology, have clearly missed the point: that Howard has ‘never stood for anything other than his own career.’

You know what? Kerr’s spot on. The mangling of Telstra, which 10 years ago was a world-leading telecommunications company providing essential public services, is proof positive that Howard’s Government has no plan for anything except winning elections. This is a Government that makes policy on the run, chopping bits off and changing key tenets at the first sign of difficulty, even when it has control of the Senate.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Howard has nothing of substance left to offer, and is simply engaged in a furious sweeping of the decks to ready the good ship Coalition for Election 2007. What’s the betting that the $8 billion raised from the sale of Telstra shares is already earmarked for more budget bribes in May?

It’s time Australia woke up to the mediocrity of the man who’s ‘leading’ our nation. How long will we continue to let Howard pick our pockets while he kisses us on the cheek?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.