Telstra split no big deal: Howard

Former Prime Minister John Howard, the man who oversaw the privatisation of Telstra in the late 1990s, has claimed that the passing of legislation ensuring the company's structural separation isn't big reform.

Former Prime Minister John Howard, the man who oversaw the privatisation of Telstra in the late 1990s, has claimed that the passing of legislation ensuring the company's structural separation isn't big reform.

John Howard

(John Howard, Sheldonian Theatre — Oxford — 19 of 22 image by Tom Lubbock, CC2.0)

After almost 12 months of debate, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 passed its final hurdle yesterday. The legislation will allow for the structural separation of Telstra and pave the way for the roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

When Telstra was privatised by the Howard Government in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government at the time did not opt to separate the company's retail from wholesale, meaning Telstra owned the networks providing access to itself and its competitors. Seeking equitable access to the copper network, Telstra's competitors have spent the past decade locked in regulatory battles with the telco giant.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has hailed the retail and wholesale separation as the "holy grail of micro-economic reform in the telecommunications sector" and as a move that corrects the "mistakes of the past". However, Howard disagrees with that assessment.

"It's been trumpeted as a huge reform. It's nothing of the kind. I mean, that's what they said about the mining tax. [Treasurer] Wayne Swan, with his 40 per cent super tax on the mining industry, said this was the greatest tax reform for decades. I mean, the thing was a disaster," Howard told Lateline last night.

The former Prime Minister disagreed with the assessment that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's ability to pass the legislation in a minority government showed her strong negotiation skills.

"Let's face it, [Greens MP] Adam Bandt and [Independent MP Andrew] Wilkie were always going to support the Labor Party," he said. "So, I don't think that was a vindication of her negotiating skills. I think it was an inevitable consequence of the personal chemistry and political beliefs of the people involved."

Howard also expressed his support for the Coalition's criticisms of the NBN project.

"I think the Coalition position on broadband is absolutely right. I mean, it's an enormous waste of money, it's an unnecessary regulation, because in many parts of Australia they're contemplating forcing people to take it unless they definitely say no, they won't have it. And I think that's a very authoritarian regulatory way of approaching something like this."

Despite the Coalition's calls for further scrutiny on the NBN, yesterday's Essential polling release revealed that 54 per cent of Coalition voters believe it is important for Australia to build the NBN. A total of 69 per cent of Australians are in favour of the project.

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