Behind its cooperative exterior, Telstra is not impressed: Kohler

By all accounts, the Telstra brains trust is now studying the scripts of Yes, Minister for guidance.

Such as: “If you are not happy with the Minister’s decision there is no need to argue him out of it. Accept it warmly, and then suggest he leaves it to you to work out the details.”

And: “In government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.”

And finally: “Any unwelcome initiative from a minister can be delayed until after the next election by the Civil Service 12-stage delaying process:

1. Informal discussions
2. Draft proposal
3. Preliminary study
4. Discussion document
5. In-depth study
6. Revised proposal
7. Policy statement
8. Strategy proposal
9. Discussion of strategy
10. Implementation plan circulated
11. Revised implementation plans
12. Cabinet agreement”

If Telstra were a person, it would now be Sir Humphrey Appleby, smiling and saying “What a courageous decision, Minister”, and “Telstra supports the NBN vision”, while quietly plotting the 12 steps of obstruction.

Word around the traps is that underneath Telstra’s affable and cooperative exterior there lurks an increasingly sullen reaction to last week’s dramatic unveiling of legislation requiring structural separation and the sale of Foxtel if Telstra wants 4G mobile spectrum.

“Telstra is bitter,” a source close to the company told me yesterday. “It feels needlessly picked on, especially over the proposed forced divestiture of Foxtel. And what national interest would be served, the company is wondering, by preventing the mobile market leader from getting more spectrum? None. It’s purely punitive.”

The internal dialogue of every company is one of self-belief and encouragement; no company, except after the most egregious transgression, believes itself to be guilty of anything.

If surliness hardens within Telstra now, then enthusiastic collaboration with the Government and the NBN Company will be most unlikely. The rhetoric might remain supportive, but it will enter a “passive aggressive” pathology (if Sol Trujillo and Phil Burgess were still in charge it would be active aggressive).

Unless the Minister, Senator Conroy, starts putting hard deadlines on things, Australia’s national broadband network could take a very long time indeed. By the time eight years of meetings have passed, his department, the NBN management and board and Telstra’s special NBN engagement team, headed by Geoff Booth, will be barely up to the policy statement stage (step 7, above).

If Telstra believed structural separation were a good idea, it would have demerged already. A long succession of managers and directors has examined the idea each time it has been raised and rejected it: integration is hard-coded into the company’s belief systems.

So having been asked to jump a hurdle at which it has so frequently baulked, Telstra’s new leadership is unlikely simply to inquire of the Minister: “How high?”

This is going to be a long, subtle and fascinating game of chess between Telstra and the Government, meeting by meeting, study by study, year after year.

This article first appeared on Business Spectator.

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