The Coalition recently surprised tech punters by changing tack and supporting Telstra’s structural separation. But is it party pragmatism or a sign of Turnbull’s growing power within the side that once disowned him?
When former shadow Communications Minister, Senator Nick Minchin, made his mark on the portfolio, it was as a Liberal stalwart with traditional values. To Minchin it was almost a duty to ensure the Government kept its hands off the private company.
“It has never been Coalition policy to mandate structural separation,” he told ARN. “I don’t trust the Government’s motives at all.
“This is an outrageous thing to be doing to shareholders that bought these shares in good faith on the basis of Telstra being a fully integrated telecommunications company.”
When Minchin retired from the post, Tony Smith was appointed as the new Coalition spokesperson. He agreed the status quo didn’t work but still fought against separation.
The tide turns
Unfortunately for the Coalition, the telco industry was firmly against Telstra’s firm grip on the market. Even its junior partner, the National Party, held mixed feelings on the issue and spoke in favour of separation.
Its last bastion of support fell when Telstra saw the writing on the wall and negotiated its way into a massive $11 billion settlement. On October 20 it came to a head as the telco threw its weight behind the Government in a supportive press statement.
Enter stage left, Malcolm Turnbull – former telco boss and investment banker. After months of stalling on the issue, he emerged from shadow cabinet talks with a fresh approach. that maintained the attack while appearing pragmatic.
“Subject to…amendments, the Coalition supports the [Government] bill’s introduction of a new and more certain access pricing regime in telecommunications,” Turnbull’s statement said. “In that context the separation of Telstra’s fixed line customer access network from its retail business would be a welcome development.”
Another more conciliatory play came in the form of Turnbull’s Transparency Bill, which demanded more oversight of the Government’s Nation Broadband Network without stopping it.
Who pulls the strings?
Is this the party finally adapting to political reality or is the Coalition being led by Turnbull’s political nous? According to Monash University senior political lecturer, Dr Nick Economou, it’s a bit of both as Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, gives his one-time rival some slack.
“[Abbott] doesn’t strike me as someone paying that much attention to the details of policy,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing here is that Turnbull is able to run with a policy issue because he’s interested in it and he can stamp his imprimatur on it.
“Abbott doesn’t mind as long as Turnbull doesn’t creep up on him in the approval ratings and the dominant line remains one of criticising Labor’s NBN stuff.”
The bottom line is that Turnbull has used his more nuanced opposition to good political effect and brought plenty of pressure to bear against the Government. If his performance continues and profile grows, so too will his ability to influence party policy.
So regardless of how you feel about his arguments, the Shadow Communications Minister is set to stay – at least until gets the numbers for a tilt at the top job.