Independents split over telco reform delay

The Coalition's attempt to delay the government's telecommunications reform package hangs in the balance as independents Steven Fielding and Nick Xenophon wait to meet with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

The Coalition's attempt to delay the government's telecommunications reform package hangs in the balance as independents Steven Fielding and Nick Xenophon wait to meet with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Family First Senator Steven Fielding is set to meet with Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy today or tomorrow to discuss whether or not to delay the government's proposal to separate Telstra, according to his spokesperson.

"Until we go through that we don't have a position either way on the National Broadband Network or the separation of Telstra. But we are concerned that the 1.4 million Telstra shareholders may have been hung out to dry," the spokesperson told ZDNet.com.au.

Fielding's support is critical to the Coalition's attempt to defer the legislation until next year. Fielding is the most likely of the two to support its efforts. With Fielding's support, the Bill would be rejected based on a 38-38 split in the Senate. Fielding also has reservations about the "structure" of the NBN: "We could be getting rid of one monopoly to create another."

Fellow South Australian independent senator, Nick Xenophon, is also set to meet with Conroy next Monday. Xenophon is generally supportive of the government's broadband plans; however, he has expressed concern over the "fair treatment of Telstra".

Xenophon's spokesperson said the Monday meeting with Conroy would determine whether or not he would support the Coalition's "delay" strategy.

Greens Senator Robert Ludlam has already said the party would not support deferring the Bill.

The Coalition's united front meanwhile has already revealed cracks, with National Party senator, Barnaby Joyce, expressing a preference for Telstra's structural separation. Still, a spokesperson for Joyce told ZDNet.com.au that the senator would still back deferring the Bill.

"We're struggling to understand why such an important piece of legislation is being rushed through without proper consultation," a spokesperson said.

Conroy today has attempted to pry open the Coalition's unity, releasing a call for Nationals leader Warran Truss to visit him for a briefing on regional telecommunications.

The call to Truss follows Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin's claim of victory over Conroy's apparent uncertain response, during a senate committee hearing this Monday, to what would happen to the fixed line services in rural areas that depend on Telstra's copper network. Telstra maintains this network under Universal Service Obligation requirements.

"Who will deliver the universal service obligation?" Minchin's spokesperson asked. "Who's going to run the copper and who will run fixed line to 8 per cent of Australia's populace that won't be getting fibre to the home?"

Minchin wants the legislation deferred until the completion of the NBN implementation study, which looks at financial and regulatory aspects of the NBN. The study is due to be completed by February 2010. It's understood that technical and deployment elements of the study were removed at the request of the NBN Company, which does not intend to wait for the study's release to commence construction.

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