We’re getting down to the wire on the appointment of a new CEO for Telstra. The Australianreported today that chairman Donald McGauchie visited the PM in Canberra yesterday to brief the government on its decision.

Various hacks, including The AFR’s then Chanticleer columnist Ivor Ries, were burnt last time predicting that Ziggy Switkowski would not get the job. Terry McCrann was the only commentator on the money back in 1998 and naturally he told the world about his accurate tip.

Like the US networks that were reluctant to call last year’s Presidential poll after the fiasco of 2000, Australia’s business journalists are not sticking their necks out on the Telstra gig after largely getting it wrong last time. Michael Sainsbury and Steve Lewis were incredibly cautious in The Australian today, floating no less than nine names: David Moffatt, John Stanhope, David Murray, John McFarlane, Michael Hawker, Gail Kelly, Doug Elix, Paul Reynolds and Terry Clontz.

If that wasn’t enough they also said that “top executives of US carriers such as AT&T, SBC and Verizon” had also been sounded out. Have we covered enough bases yet?

The Australian did claim that “sources have ruled out Commonwealth Bank chief executive David Murray”. However, this is different from the scenario which Crikey has heard that sees the Telstra board wanting Murray, but the PM is yet to sign off.

At this point Crikey can only urge John Howard to reject Murray. It would be a political disaster because of the way he has withdrawn CBA services in the bush whilst the banking cartel has gouged millions of Australian and enriched thousands of bank executives and shareholders.

The argument in favour of Murray is that he successfully transformed the CBA from a sleepy and bureaucratic government-owned bank into a hugely profitable public company after aggressive cost cutting which is still reverberating through the bank.

This might be good for shareholders but it will provide huge ammunition for those opposed to the privatisation on fears that the bush will be treated by Telstra in exactly the same way the banks left so many towns.

Howard confidante and Liberal loyalist John Ralph is the obvious link between Telstra and the CBA, having chaired the bank since 1999 until his retirement at last year’s AGM. He has also been deputy chairman of Telstra since 1997, stepping up briefly to be acting chairman last year when Bob Mansfield was ousted until Donald McGauchie took over. Having severed his ties with the CBA board, Ralph would no longer be constrained in recommending Murray to his Telstra board colleagues.

If John Howard does sign off on Murray, and it remains a big if, new CBA chairman John Schubert has apparently lined up St George CEO to return to where the South African-born banker first made her name in corporate Australia. This would be a good move as Kelly, who somehow juggles having triplets with a stellar corporate career, was much admired at the CBA and has done an excellent job at St George.

The speculating is mounting around the top CBA job as you can see from this AAP report last night.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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