The media coverage of the unprecedented board spat between Telstra and the federal government has been predictably enormous, but both the company and the PM are not actually spelling out the precise problem.

John Howard’s rejected Telstra board nominee Geoffrey Cousins gave interviews to The AFR and The Australian today pushing the line that he was completely independent and available to meet and satisfy all Telstra’s internal processes.

Similarly, John Howard’s defence yesterday was that Cousins is “eminently well qualified for the job”, which fails to address the problem of having the PM’s personal political advertising guru sitting inside the adversarial Telstra board leading into an election.

Telstra should probably have come straight out and said that Cousins has a screaming conflict of interest because he is so close to the PM. As one Telstra director anonymously told The AFR:

“How are we going to have an open and frank discussion on regulation and what we do about it?”

Cousins is an aggressive character who would probably sue Telstra if it came out and said he has all the independence of Harriet Myers, Dubya’s personal attorney who he tried to appoint to the US Supreme Court. Harriet withdrew after a storm lasting three weeks. Cousins shouldn’t take that long.

However, if Cousins toughs it out and does want to prove his independence he needs to first disclose exactly how much money he has been paid by the Howard Government and the Liberal Party over the years.

The Howard Government has an increasing problem with former loyalists going native. The six longer-serving Telstra directors all did that in 2004 when they went to Howard and said his man, Bob Mansfield, was getting the flick and they would select their own chairman, Donald McGauchie.

The two Howard mates on the board, John Ralph and Tony Clark, both quickly departed rather than be associated with this insubordination, but now Howard is putting up a new mate who is utterly inappropriate.

The government’s record in hand-picking Liberal mates for Telstra has been very poor. Who can forget what Richard Alston’s personal friend Steve Vizard did?

Peter Fray

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