Communications Minister Helen Coonan said the wait for a new ACMA
chairman would be worth it and I guess it was. Chris Chapman is a
highly unorthodox but compelling choice for a job that requires a
diverse bunch of skill sets ranging from nanny through to engineer.

Chapman’s resume certainly shows his flexibility. Trained in law, he
initially worked as an associate to Chief Justice Garfield Barwick in
1978, later moving to Mallesons Stephen Jaques. In 1984 he made the
jump into commercial life as Seven Network’s internal legal director,
and gained promotions to head its Brisbane station, then its 1988
Olympics coverage, its Sydney unit and then eventually became COO.

In 1996, he moved across to Stadium Australia as CEO where he oversaw
the construction of Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. His tenure there is
generally regarded as a success, with the stadium built ahead of time
and on budget. However, his departure in 2000 was said not to be a
decision entirely of his own choosing.

The nadir of his career was an unhappy two years at the helm of
[email protected] Australia, the ill-fated Optus-Excite joint venture. Upon
exiting what was one of Australia’s more prominent dot-com follies, he
re-emerged as the managing director of Prime Infrastructure Management,
which was eventually re-branded Babcock & Brown Infrastructure.

Here he ended up involved in one of Australia’s most heated competition
stoushes over his firm’s Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal. Prime held back
on investing in the terminal’s development because of what it viewed as
below-cost access prices set by the Queensland Competition Authority –
a position that put it at odds with mining exporters who subsequently
experienced delays in shipping their ore overseas. The whole imbroglio
saw Chapman caught in the middle of a feud between the Treasurer Peter
Costello and the Queensland government.

This feud set off a domino reaction that now sees the Federal
government viewing competition regulation with some skepticism and more
convinced of the need to be sympathetic to major infrastructure
investors – a reaction now playing out in the various regulatory
reviews over Telstra.

For his part, Chapman won himself a seeming promotion in July last year
that saw him take charge as COO of Babcock & Brown’s global
specialist fund operations with a brief to build the business with new
product lines. Now, a mere six months later, he is to head ACMA – a job
more in tune with his skill sets.

What will Chapman bring to ACMA? Well, for starters, an extensive
private sector lineage that is virtually unheard of among Australia’s
government agency chiefs. Given his own experience with the 20 month
regulatory delays at Dalrymple Bay, he is likely to want to speed up
ACMA’s decision making processes and beef up its productivity and
accountability to constituents. As a lawyer, he is unlikely to be
snowed by internal managers.

He also has a very good understanding of the commercial dynamics of
ACMA’s two main constituencies – telcos and broadcasters. This
shoul lead to a reality check on some of the more fanciful stuff
that is a common characteristic of the output of government in
Australia.

Some might think that ACMA is a toothless tiger and that the real
action is over at the ACCC and DCITA. Nothing could be further from the
truth. ACMA’s technical decisions on spectrum management have a great
bearing on competition in this country: witness the extensive bloom of
wireless alternatives to Telstra in recent years. And the correctly
labeled co-regulation regime it presides over with the Australian
Communications Industry Forum has an enormous influence over the
sector’s business operations.

Chapman is a wild card in the area of content and media regulation. We
don’t really know where his ideology sits. But he is unlikely to
display the cultural warrior proclivities of a David Flint. He is also
unlikely to display the bureaucrat’s preference for pedantry – for
example, press releasing against the Never Never Community Radio
Station’s egregious license breach for broadcasting a 31 second
advertisement at 3am one morning, the kind of stuff that ACMA currently
loves.

ACMA now has a leader and can get on with its work. Despite the
creditable interim work conducted by Lyn Maddock and Chris Cheah, the
reality remains that ACMA was in a state of limbo for too long. We all
know that Chapman wasn’t the first choice for the position.
Nevertheless, he is a good choice and will add a new dynamic to comms
policy in Australia.

Peter Fray

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