The ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuel this week admitted he’d been sidelined by the Government that appointed him to the job as Australia’s chief competition watchdog.

The admission came as Communications Minister Helen Coonan entered talks with carriers on fibre broadband proposals, shutting the door to Mr Samuel.

“So much of the activity at the moment in relation to this area is occurring in the political arena,” Mr Samuel told a communications conference in Sydney.

“So I have to say we’re not participants, but we have been relegated to interested – and, perhaps at times, anxious – observers.”

Mr Samuel has every reason to feel anxious.

Under his watch investment in fixed telecommunications infrastructure has sunk to record low levels, while all the time Mr Samuel has steadfastly refused to admit there’s any problem with regulation or indeed the regulator itself.

When Telstra’s fibre investment plans stalled last year Mr Samuel used his media machine to claim existing investment access arrangements could be made to work – only Telstra wasn’t interested in using them.

As recently as last month the ACCC continued with this argument, holding up an access agreement between the ACCC and Foxtel as evidence the regulations really could be made to work.

That attack on Telstra conveniently overlooked the fact that the Foxtel agreement had taken over five years to get to that point. And now this week we learn of yet another appeal, meaning that case will drag on into its sixth year with still no binding agreement.

Mr Samuel says Telstra should have used the same flawed process to get approval for its new fibre to the node network. Imagine where the rest of the world will be in six years time if Australia is still waiting on the ACCC for the go-ahead to start investing in a fibre network?

No wonder the Government has relegated Graeme Samuel to being just an observer.

Peter Fray

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