“The Commonwealth Government will invest $958 million to ensure that 98-99 per cent of the Australian population will have access to very fast and affordable broadband – that’s 12 megabytes per second by June 2009,” Prime Minister John Howard said today.

As the policy wonks get their heads around the merits of the new Government Broadband plan and its $1billion Optus/Elders joint venture, it is worth reflecting on the back story, which I think is an encouraging tale about the limits of spin and public relations.

The last few years and particularly the last six months have seen Telstra conduct one of the most aggressive and vituperative public relations campaigns in Australia’s history. Using corporate blogs, full-page newspaper advertisements and the creation of a supposed community action group, Telstra has tried to skew political debate. 

It has represented the battle over Telstra’s Broadband desires and those of its competitors as one between good and evil. In one podcast on the Telstra site, the head of the so-called community campaign, Telstra shareholder Syd Lawrence, asked why he has become an activist quotes the old cliché about evil triumphing when good men do nothing. There is not a hint of irony, and indeed this is the kind of overblown rhetoric that has characterised all of Telstra’s approach.

Telstra has described its competitors as leeches, abused the Government, cosied up to the Opposition, accused the regulators of ruining Australia and so on and so forth. The rhetoric really has been quite extraordinary.

And what has Telstra gotten out of all this? So far, it seems, the answer is diddly squat.

All the indications, including public opinion polls (admittedly commissioned by Telstra’s competitors) suggest that the public remains unconvinced, and Telstra remains on the nose.

Meanwhile, Optus and Elders have cut a good deal with Government on rural and regional broadband. The panel to assess competing FTTN bids for the cities will include representation from Telstra’s bete noir the ACCC, and while regulations are being reviewed, there are no promises that it will be done to Telstra’s timetable or liking.

Who has come out best in the battle of PR? So far, one would have to say Optus.

I am reminded of former ABC head Russell Balding’s reflections on his predecessor David Hill’s “eight cents a day” campaign on ABC funding. Balding had rejected conducting any such campaign, and said to me, “You never win those kinds of fights with government.”

Could it be that Telstra’s campaign, far from catapulting monopoly advantages into the future, will actually manage to result in the undoing of Telstra’s seemingly unassailable market advantages?

Too soon to say, but one thing is for sure: Telstra’s tactics and the outcome will be the subject of study by would be spin doctors for years to come.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.