Terry Television wonders whether anyone is listening to the new Communications Minister and why she opens her mouth sometimes.

Helen Coonan, rather Senator Helen Coonan is a Sydney A-lister, especially in the arts and especially in Opera. She’s at first nights
with hubbie, former NSW Supreme Court judge Andrew Rogers. With the blonde hair packed into a hi-helmet and an active networker,
she’s an impressive worker of rooms she finds her self in. She presents well as a politician.

So when she got the Communications gig in the reshuffle last month, it was no real surprise. She’s now a trusted member of the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party, having shaken off her ‘wet’ image after throwing her lot in with John Howard.

But la Coonan has made what seems to be two major pronouncements in the past couple of days and they have sort of sunk like a stone.
Is it because she doesn’t have the media skills or connections of the old stager, Richard Alston, who was in the portfolio for a long time
and had the number and name of every major executive and commentator in his contact book?

Certainly Coonan is more in the mould of her predecessor, Darryl Williams, who was there nine months for not much noise. Which was
probably a good thing given Alston’s propensity to bang on about everything under the sun in media and IT, and get much of it wrong.

Certainly The Australian Financial Review, which normally drops everything to put every minor media related muttering from the
Packers, the Murdochs and the odd minister in the front of the paper, seems to have slept through the new minister’s latest murmurings.
But perhaps they know her and her form for saying something, then saying the opposite a little later.

Take her latest forays. On Monday AAP reported her as “Downplaying new TV Licence”. They quoted her as telling The Age, “I don’t mind signalling now that that I can’t see a great need for a fourth network, and indeed, I think the sort of niche markets being talked about are largely being fulfilled through the Foxtel network.”

“I just don’t think anyone has really come up with what you would say is a really good reason for a fourth one (network). Well, the partying and fireworks over Sydney Harbour on Monday night were just the Packers, Ten, Foxtel and Kerry Stokes celebrating the victory over the ogre of competition.

For a minister who is in Canberra, at first nights and other functions, plus just politicking, you’d have to question how much TV
she really watches, let alone sees. So how would she know how the existing operators handled things at the moment, especially Foxtel,
which is busy coping with its digitisation so as to create the technology platform for things like interactive programming, on line
gaming and gambling through groups like Betfair, to be half owned in Australia by PBL.

You’d have to wonder that if John Howard is re-elected, who would become the Real Communications Minister? Is this a stop-gap minister putting a bid in for the fulltime gig post poll, and doing that by giving the existing TV and pay-TV operators an easy win, without too much lobbying involved?

And then there was Helen’s second pronouncement, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, on Tuesday in the Tech liftout. You’d have to think that the Federal Opposition’s Communications spokesman, Lindsay Tanner, might be feeling a little miffed. When he proposed a hiving off of parts of Telstra in 2002, he was attacked from all sides, especially from the Government for threatening Telstra’s wellbeing and putting the company and government at risk from legal action from shareholders.

Indeed the Government set up an inquiry midway through 2002 after Tanner had raised the idea of a split in May of that year. But in February 2003, the day before the Government appointed committee was to look at the issue and start taking evidence, it was
canned.

This is how the late ABC economics reporter, Ian Henderson reported the situation at the time: “It was not so long ago that ALP communications spokesman Lindsay Tanner raised the suggestion of splitting Telstra into several businesses; one to own the core network and others to sell communications services.

“The Howard Government rejected that idea out of hand, and set up a parliamentary inquiry into what’s called the ‘structural separation’
of Telstra, just to throw mud as Labor’s suggestion. But today, it was revealed that the National Competition Council had told the
inquiry that the Government should consider splitting Telstra, in the interests of consumers.

“Strangely, three things happened within hours: The Government closed down the inquiry, Labor abandoned its plan to split the phone
company, and Mr Tanner flagged that a future Labor government might want Telstra to get out of its current Pay TV partnership with PBL
and News Limited.

Mr Tanner explained to the ABC, “We believe that most of the outcome in competition terms can be generated by better regulation of Telstra, and that the time for splitting Telstra into two separate companies has almost passed. One thing seems clears from the report we’ve received today, that the price the tax-payer would have to pay to separate Telstra into two separate companies, because of the need to compensate not only share-holders and deal with a range of court actions, would just be too high “

So is La Coonan flogging a dead linesman, or is this a small, but significant indicator of where the present Federal Government might
go if re-elected.

Backflips of this size and kind are not unknown by this Howard Government, but has the new minister merely floated something to try
and draw the ALP out into the open, or is it a sign that something is on the move.

“No to the fourth network on Monday, Foxtel and the existing players are doing a good job.”

And Tuesday, a look at splitting Telstra up, with the easiest part of the whole study to recommend hiving off Foxtel, thereby satisfying
competition worries, getting the ACCC off Telstra’s back, and throwing a big juicy bone to the broadcasters (especially Packer and
Murdoch)?

In the run up to an election, anything is possible, but then the Minister told the Senate Tuesday afternoon there was no case for
forcing Telstra to sell Foxtel. A switch in emphasis? Check out the SMH coverage here.

So what is she on about and does she really understand the portfolio, or is it a touch of the Richard Alstons: when confronted by a
microphone or a journalist, say anything for the headline, then clarify later.

But the clincher was her reported as saying there were also question marks over calls for Telstra to spin off other parts of its
business.”There are many people around who do advocate structural separation, vertical separation, spin-offs from Telstra, hollowing
out Telstra … none of that really addresses what kind of industry you would have if you actually did that,” she said.

When asked whether she supported Telstra splitting itself into wholesale and retail divisions, Senator Coonan said: “Obviously the
government is not in the business of regulating the structure of industries – the government is in the business of regulating the
industry so there can be appropriate access for other players.”

On the evidence of the past two days she does A-list networking well. Communicating as Communications Minister is another thing.