In one of his first meetings as Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield met with executives from state-owned China Telecom weeks before he met with representatives from Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone, Crikey can reveal.
The admission is contained in over a dozen pages of diary appointments of Fifield’s first three months as the Minister for Communications, obtained by Crikey after an 18-month battle to get the logs under freedom of information law.
China Telecom doesn’t have a major presence in Australia, and was only established here in 2011, mainly focusing on business network services. The company barely registers in the news in Australia, even in the local technology press. Nevertheless, the company was able to secure an early meeting with the new minister. Just a week after being sworn in, Fifield’s diary records that on September 29, 2015, Fifield held an “introductory meeting” with the telco’s representatives, sandwiched between media interviews with The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.
According to the diary entries, his meeting with the telco was even before meeting with NBN Co executives — he is one of two shareholder ministers for the NBN. That meeting, with the chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operations officer and other executives didn’t happen until the following day, on September 30. Fifield did not meet with any other telecommunications companies for over another week, when he met with Telstra’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer and head of government relations on October 9. Optus did not get a meeting with the minister until October 21, and Vodafone had to wait until October 30. John Stanton, the head of the telecommunications lobby group, Communications Alliance, had a meeting with Fifield on November 2.
A spokesperson for Fifield did not explain why China Telecom scored the first meeting before other telecommunications companies or what the meeting was about, simply stating that “the minister meets a wide range of stakeholders”.
Infamously, another Chinese state-owned telecommunications company Huawei has been banned from supplying technology for the National Broadband Network. Proposed changes to legislation that governs Australia’s telecommunications network infrastructure would also give the government power to direct commercial companies not to use technology or make changes to their network that may impact the security of their network. This has been viewed by the sector as an attempt to extend the NBN-Huawei ban out to the rest of the industry. The legislation received bipartisan support from the parliamentary committee reviewing the bill, but the legislation did not pass prior to the Parliament rising for the winter break.
Fifield’s office had long fought releasing his diary under FOI law, going so far as taking Crikey to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Crikey sought access to the first three months of Fifield’s diary in his time as Communications Minister in 2015. Fifield’s office refused this request at the start of January 2016, but earlier this year, Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim overturned this decision and ordered Fifield’s office to hand over the 15 pages of the diary. Fifield’s office then appealed the decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, at the same time as the AAT also received an appeal from the Prime Minister’s Office for a similar FOI request from The Australian. That appeal appears to still be ongoing.
Last month, Fifield’s office offered to settle the case, committing to providing a printout of the relevant diary entries for Fifield as minister — minus the personal entries, and personal information like phone numbers — rather than providing an exact output of the Microsoft Outlook email program diary similar to what Attorney-General George Brandis ultimately handed over after Labor’s epic battle over his diary. Crikey accepted this offer to settle the case.
Crikey will have more coverage from Fifield’s diary in the coming days.