One can only be impressed with the majesty of parliamentary democracy as one contemplates the fate of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 in the Senate.

Everyone — even the Coalition — are in furious agreement that Telstra needs to be structurally separated. Even the company itself wants the bill to be passed.

As do, presumably, tens of thousands of Telstra shareholders who have seen uncertainty (and the peculiar investment strategy of the Future Fund) butcher the share price in recent months.

Does that mean the bill is going to be passed? Are you kidding?

Despite the common agreement, an absurd spat over the release of the NBN business plan, primarily involving Nick Xenophon, looks set to stymie passage of the bill, ensuring that Telstra shareholders continue in limbo until next year.

The only real losers out of this clash of senatorial egos will be the shareholders. The NBN itself will continue to roll out, and the bill will eventually pass after June 30 next year once the Greens take the balance of power. But in the interim, the steadily-diminishing Telstra and its long-suffering shareholders will face extensive delays in the resolution of the company’s future.

The NBN business plan — which, The Australian breathlessly revealed today is still being vetted by the government — will be released in December. If it’s that important to Xenophon, and the Greens and Steve Fielding, for that matter — at least Fielding availed himself of a briefing on it — then they can reconvene in a couple of weeks. Canberra’s lovely in December, believe me, and we could all do with an extra week’s Senate sitting to digest the apparently critical business plan. The Senate of the Keating era used to meet right up until the week before Christmas, so no one can really complain.

Then they can pass the bill with which everyone is in furious agreement. It’s not like senators have much else to do.

On the other hand, the government continues to demonstrate why it’s only half-smart when it comes to getting its message across. Yesterday it continued its laudable tactic of devoting an entire question time to a single topic. It won’t change any voters’ minds about the various issues that have been elevated thus — a carbon price, health, broadband — but it suggests the Labor brains trust knows it needs to changes it communications approach, even if it isn’t sure exactly what it should change it to.

But it couldn’t resist having a dig at Malcolm Turnbull over his investment in Melbourne IT yesterday. The smart approach would have been to have a Dixer on industry views about the NBN, during which the comments of Melbourne IT CEO Theo Hnarakis could have been dwelt upon at length, without mentioning Turnbull at all. Opposition points of order (and a righteous self-defence from Turnbull) would have been useless, and the point made effectively.

Instead, the government, from the prime minister down, had to get stuck into Turnbull as though he’d been sprung committing the most egregious violation of parliamentary standards, when all he was guilty of was advocating a position contrary to the interests of one of his own long-standing investments.

Half-smart. It’s one of the hallmarks of this government.

Peter Fray

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