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Monday, 12 October 2009 17:32

Nationals defer decision on Telstra, industry reform

The Nationals have put on hold any decision on how to deal with proposed telecommunications regulatory changes at least until after a Senate committee reports at the end of the month.

And it wants to hear more from Government on the progress of its closed-door discussions with Telstra on the reforms – and more particularly on its proposed structural separation of the company.

A Nationals party room hook up on Friday formally addressed the telecommunications reform bill for the first time as part of a meeting dominated by the looming Emissions Trading Scheme debate. The Telstra submission to the Senate inquiry was published midway through the meeting.

And it deferred formalising a party position on the reforms. Where the Nationals land on the issue could decide whether the legislation gets considered this year or not.

The party's default position on broadband is simple enough. It wants better services to regional Australia, and it wants those services delivered as soon as possible. And it would prefer that the reform debate not be delayed.

But it won’t be rushed either. It wants to see what the Telstra negotiations with Government produce before considering the legislation.

The Nationals have a positive view of the NBN policy objectives, and there is broad recognition that competition has failed the bush. But they have different ideas about how to get there.

There is quiet support among some for Stephen Conroy’s negotiations with Telstra. But equally, the party has not forgiven Conroy for cancelling the $1 billion Opel contract that it says would have delivered better services to the bush – services that would have been in place now. So they are playing their cards close.

It is inconceivable that the Nationals would ultimately oppose either the regulatory reforms, or the broader NBN. But there is an argument inside the party that says the Opel debacle has already cost regional Australia a two years delay - and that the February delivery of the Government's NBN implementation study may be worth considering if it meant getting the legislation right.

There is no way it wants to be seen as the catalyst for any delay.

Most of the industry see the legislation as a no-brainer – even if there are suggested amendments. If the Nationals join the Liberals in delaying debate on the reforms until after both the Telstra negotiation and the delivery of the implementation study, it becomes more of a numbers game.

With the Greens likely to side with Government, it then gets down to Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon. Fielding is waiting until the Senate committee reports (and will participate in committee meetings this week) before deciding. Xenophon has public supported the reform objectives and NBN.

All of which is academic, of course. If the numbers look iffy, the bill won't be put up. Conroy wants the legislation passed this year. But he would wear a delay of a couple of months before he would wear even the remote sniff of a defeat.

And then there's the scheduling issue. The Greens’ Scott Ludlam told iTWire last week he didn't know that there were enough sitting days left to consider the regulatory reforms. Nick Minchin at the weekend said much the same thing.

And now the Nationals are also starting to wonder out loud whether there is time to look at the telecommunications reform bill, given the expected length of the ETS debate.

Ironically, if it was the Nationals running the show, the ETS debate would be a very short indeed.

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