When Telstra and Phil Burgess were ripping into Graeme Samuel and the Howard Government last year, News Ltd’s Terry McCrann was one of many critics who lined up to give him a whack.

But the big talking American really turned things around in a speech last week, generating this gushing praise from the normally hard-to-impress McCrann.

Burgess is literally Australia’s busiest business executive on the Australian talk circuit and he graced the MEAA public affairs conference in Sydney yesterday afternoon, turning in another virtuoso performance.

There were plenty of gags. Brendan Nelson was “what’s his face, the guy with the funny hair” and his Canberra bashing was rationalised on the ground that “the reason you kick pollies around is so you can be nice to dogs”.

While Burgess is first and foremost a Telstra spruiker who wants to maximise the power of its monopoly, his insights into Australian political, business and media life are getting better with time.

When the promoters of the new Australian Institute for Public Policy fronted Phil for some support, he laughed them out of his office on the basis that no think tank can possibly be independent when the Victorian and Federal Labor governments are contributing $30 million and will have multiple seats on the board.

And rather than opportunistically going with the media flow now that relations with the new Rudd Labor Government seem ok, Burgess slammed our industry to the spinners yesterday.

“The Australian media is very subservient to government. It was subservient to the last government and after five months it is subservient to this government.”

How true it is.

The Rudd Government has an important decision coming up when Graeme Samuel’s first term at the ACCC expires and the Telstra situation will be a major factor.

After slamming the previous government for giving the flawed Opel consortium a $1 billion hand out, I asked Phil if he now agreed this decision was driven entirely by government spite.

“My own gut instinct is that they did it out of spite,” he said. “If they did that, shame on them… it is unbelievable.”

Burgess revealed that there were three attempts to fix the government relationship before the Opel decision but they were torpedoed each time with Peter Costello and his great mate Samuel driving this strategy.

The 7.30 Report’s Greg Hoy reported last June that Telstra went too far when Burgess said the following: “When Labor talks about broadband, they talk about jobs, growth, economic development, urban-rural parity, export, productivity growth, all the things that are important. When the regulator talks about broadband, they talk about regulations.”

Peter Costello responded with the following: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company in Australia engage in the kind of attacks that Telstra is currently engaging in upon an independent statutory regulator. And this attack, and it’s quite a personal attack, is absolutely unprecedented.”

Costello promptly gave the Singapore Government $1 billion to build the sub-standard WiMAX network in the bush. The Rudd Government has since cancelled the Opel contract and Graeme Samuel must be feeling pretty nervous about his prospects.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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