Another day, another fascinating debate about the future of public
company AGMs featuring a panel of key players and, most importantly,
Telstra’s colourful regulatory boss, Phil Burgess.

The caravan moved to Sydney’s Sheraton on the Park yesterday and there
were plenty more gems from big Phil who claimed the miserably small
5800 visits a week (not a month as Phil said in Melbourne) that Telstra’s you beaut new website, nowwearetalking.com.au, gets is mainly from people who are bored with Crikey and moved on.

Yesterday, I pledged to the AGM debaters that the Crikey Army would double Phil’s traffic as we implored 35,000 of you to visit the site
and repeat that message today. It really is worth a look because no
other Australian public company has ever produced such a jovial and
straight-talking website, complete with blogs and a cartoonist. There’s
also plenty of ammunition being fired in the war with the government
over excessive regulation.

There was an interesting moment yesterday when Lateline host Tony Jones asked me if Telstra’s combative approach to the government would backfire.

I said it was refreshing to have some straight talking for a change but
the Howard Government has a well-established track record of rewarding
monopolies and duopolies – such as the banks, the ASX, Sydney Airport,
Patrick, Qantas and the like – that sit there like corporate patsies
and never criticise. Political donations also usually help too.

The contrast between Telstra throwing rocks and Qantas spending
millions on political largesse is stark indeed. Qantas never strongly criticises
the government and Telstra seemed to get a much better hearing when it
provided the PM and communications minister Richard Alston with free
digital plasma TVs.

Westpac company secretary and panellist Richard Willcox didn’t seem too
happy with my assessment and outlined some complaints that Westpac had
with government regulation, although you’d never see it in a letter to
shareholders or a major advertising campaign. And Westpac is the biggest donor of the major banks.

After all, when one bank economist criticised government policy, Peter
Costello famously rang his CEO and threatened adverse regulatory
interventions. Sadly, that’s the Australian corporatist system.

The one thing that could save Telstra is the government’s obvious
interest in maximising the value of its 51% stake, but caving in to
Telstra’s many demands would be too big a dose of humble pie for those
sensitive souls in the Howard Government.

Phil Burgess is absolutely right when he says that “a little bit of
humble pie sometimes is good for the soul”. Unfortunately, the glass
jaws at the top of the Howard government don’t see it that way and seem
determined to run down the Telstra share price in order to punish Sol
Trujillo’s management team for daring to have a different view.

Peter Fray

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