Crossbenchers in dark on Telstra-split Bill

As Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy braces to push through his Telstra-splitting legislation next week, crossbenchers have said they're unsure exactly what they will be haggling over.

As Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy braces to push through his Telstra-splitting legislation next week, crossbenchers have said they're unsure exactly what they will be haggling over.

"We're still not sure of the form the Bill will be presented in," Greens Senator Scott Ludlam told ZDNet.com.au, referring to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009, due to be tabled in parliament as early as next Tuesday.

Ludlam pointed out that if Telstra agreed to a structural separation — the government's preferred fate for the telco — large swathes of the Bill, such as that dealing with functional separation, could be removed. If that occurred, Ludlam said the Greens would still push to improve consumer safeguards within the Bill.

While an official list of Bills to be debated in parliament has yet to be issued by the government, a spokesperson from Conroy's office said it was due for next week's sitting.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said he wanted to ensure that Telstra's separation would be truly structural if that was the road taken. "If it is structural separation, it must be true structural separation, and there are also concerns over safeguards for consumers. I think the legislation can be improved on," Xenophon said today.

While neither the Greens nor Xenophon have been sought out by Conroy for support in recent weeks, Family First's Steve Fielding is set to meet with Conroy this Monday, according to Fielding's spokesperson.

Fielding, the wild card on the Bill, has raised concerns over the impact of the split on mum and dad shareholders, and has questioned whether the Future Fund had any knowledge of the government's proposed legislation prior to its sell-off of Telstra shares. But Fielding remains undecided over Telstra's separation.

Xenophon said he expected to be fully briefed by Conroy's office prior to the Bill being tabled.

While Conroy's silence has fuelled rumours in Canberra that a deal between the NBN Co and Telstra has already been struck, comments by Telstra chief David Thodey last week at its half-year results seemed to rule out any such deal. For Telstra to agree to structurally separate it still needs to be able to present a case to its shareholders. "I definitely think it's months before we can get to shareholders," he said.

The Heads of Agreement reached between Telstra and the NBN Co late last year regarding the transfer of customers on Telstra's wholesale network to the NBN Co lacked any consideration of numbers that would enable Telstra to explain to shareholders the likely impact on shareholder value, according to Thodey.

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