John Howard’s decision to bulldoze his old mate Geoffrey Cousins onto the Telstra board has got many observers digging into history.

For starters, Cousins will be the fourth Optus refugee foisted on Telstra and the other three – Ziggy Switkowski, Ted Pretty and Bob Mansfield – haven’t exactly set the world on fire.

A favourite Cousins anecdote was revealed in one of those great Pam Williams features in The AFR back in 2000:

According to an account given to The AFR by one of those present during a particularly fiery Optus Vision board meeting, an adjournment was called to let the brawling players cool down. During the break, Optus Vision’s chief executive, Geoff Cousins, is said to have walked around to Switkowski and said, “Listen, you f…ing p…k, if you say one more thing, I’ll throw you out that window.”

Whilst Ziggy was with Optus at the time, there is something not quite right about foisting an ex-Optus bloke onto Telstra’s board whose pro-Packer tactics when running Optus Vision cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.

Indeed, Sol Trujillo’s old company US West wrote off almost $500 million on its 46.5% stake in Optus Vision after the crazy Super League and cable roll-out wars of the mid-1990s.

There’s little doubt that Cousins bungled Optus Vision, partly because he chose to use telephony over cable with a digital channel, rather than alternative technologies that worked well elsewhere.

He announced ahead of time and launched on the day with John Howard making the first call. The ACCC investigated the launch — essentially for advertising something that wasn’t really available – and a year later they were still having serious technical issues.

Whilst Cousins has long been part of the John Howard-Packer family orbit, he’s also got a very independent streak as his attacks on corporate governance at Hudson Conway in 1998 demonstrated.

However, this is a story with ironies upon ironies. The AFR went to town exclusively on the Cousins story this morning after getting the drop from Telstra, which would have very much pleased Fairfax chairman Ron Walker, who was one of the HudCon and Crown Casino directors Cousins bagged in 1998.

Peter Fray

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