Ludlam: Telstra-split Bill unlikely in '09

The Bill that will decide whether Telstra remains vertically integrated is set for debate in parliament this Thursday, but Greens Senator Scott Ludlam doubts it will happen this year and blames Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin for it.

update The Bill that will decide whether Telstra remains vertically integrated is set for debate in parliament this Thursday, but Greens Senator Scott Ludlam doubts it will happen this year and blames Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin for it.

The most significant telecommunications legislation in decades — the Labor Government's Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill — is likely to be scuttled, at least for the year, thanks to Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin's "abuse of Senate procedure", according to Ludlam.

"I will be surprised and impressed if we get to [the Bill] this year," Ludlam told ZDNet.com.au. "To use the [Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS)] Bill to delay passage of another is a real abuse of Senate procedure."

If Ludlam is right, Minchin will have achieved a previous goal to have the debate deferred until the government released documents related to the first NBN proposal — a motion that was voted down last month by crossbenchers — the Greens, independent Nick Xenophon, and Family First Senator Steve Fielding — which cleared the way for Thursday's debate.

Minchin's spokesperson said the logic of Ludlam's accusation was "bemusing" and that it was actually Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy's fault that the Bill, following its debate, was unlikely to pass this year.

"It's bemusing where Ludlam is coming from when it was Senator Conroy who argued the case of how urgent the legislation was — and who before going to Egypt, gave a commitment to the Senate to raise the bill in the last sitting week and have it voted on this week," a spokesperson for Minchin's office said.

"How can you draw the conclusion that non-appearance of the legislation is quite bemusing. What we're seeing is an inability of the government to manage its legislative program."

If the Bill is passed in its current form, Telstra will either be required to voluntarily separate its wholesale and retail arms or else face harsher regulation and be forced to sell its HFC network and stake in Foxtel as well as being banned from acquiring radio spectrum that would support emerging 4G wireless technologies. It also amends ministerial powers to determine how Telstra is broken up, and makes significant changes to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's powers to regulate the industry.

The government is likely to be persuaded into making significant amendments to the Bill. The Nationals support for the Bill in its current form is likely to be contingent on the outcome of the CPRS debate, but how that plays out is not known. The Nationals, in particular Barnaby Joyce, have expressed support for Telstra's separation but may back the Liberals to show a united Coalition.

Ludlam said the Greens support was contingent on the government making seven key amendments to the Bill, largely focused on telecommunications regulations during the years between the Bill's passing and the deployment of the National Broadband Network in its entirety.

The Greens also want protections for Telstra's staff included into the Bill, and ministerial discretion over what Telstra's separation should look like wound back. Ludlam said that as the government faced an election year, Conroy should not have "the ability to write a blank cheque" which could impact how Telstra's assets are valued.

Xenophon has already thrown his support behind the plan to split Telstra but, like the Greens, wants to ensure regional households are not disadvantaged by proposed Universal Service Obligations under the Bill.

It's still unclear exactly which way Family First Senator Steve Fielding will swing, or indeed what he wants, given his belief that negotiations between the government and Telstra over its separation should be conducted commercially rather than through legislative instruments.

Fielding's office today told ZDNet.com.au that his main concern was "the legislative gun which is being held to Telstra's head".

"We want to make sure Telstra gets a fair deal, but this is a matter of commercial negotiations between the parties," a spokesperson told ZDNet.com.au. Fielding has yet to make a final decision on whether to support the Bill.

Meanwhile, Minchin has celebrated that after two years in power the government has not delivered its NBN. "This Labor government and Senator Conroy have been huge disappointments and despite all the big talk, Mr Rudd cannot escape the fact he has failed to deliver a single new service under his NBN in two years," Minchin said in a statement this afternoon.