John Howard may well only retire after he has beaten Robert Menzies’ record (unless he is thrown out by people or party beforehand). But whenever he retires, I cannot imagine him doing what Menzies did shortly afterwards.
Menzies was invited by the University of Virginia to give seven lectures on Central Power in the Australian Commonwealth.
They show Menzies as a nation-builder rather than a mere exerciser of power for its own sake.
Menzies had an understanding that in Australia some things had to be done by government, as a matter of practicality, irrespective of ideology.
He told his American audience: “Australian railways, unlike yours, have for the most part been built and run by Governments. This has not been the result of some socialist theory; it is a heritage of 19th-century conditions.
“With a small and scattered population, national development required the construction of many non-paying railway lines to open up new country. And so governments took over and have for most of the time conducted their railways at a loss, for the public gain.”
That was 1967.
Come forward four decades, and cross out the word “railway” and insert the word “internet”. Or cross out the word “railway” and insert the word “mobile phone network”. The same principle should apply.
But instead we have a hotch-potch – the result of ideology and political compromise over the past two decades. The latest idiocy is the Government’s reaction to the announcement this week by Telstra that it would not build a fibre-cable network for high-speed broadband internet access across the nation.
The Government is to do nothing, yet it owns 51.3 per cent of Telstra.
It should have had the courage and leadership to say we will build the internet cable network and while we are at it we will build a single nationwide mobile telephone network?
Telstra says it needs exemption from normal competition rules to make such a net work profitable. There is probably a lot of truth in that. As Menzies said, Australia has a small and scattered population.
In Europe, with a high and dense population, there is saturation mobile and high-speed internet access. A competitive, market-based system works well. Australia is not Europe.
Generally, I am opposed to government ownership of industry, but sometimes markets do not deliver. There are some natural government-owned monopolies: the army, roads and telecommunications are classics.
Private armies are an obvious evil. The small amount of privatisation of roads in Australia has been a fiasco. Ask any Sydney commuter. And the mostly privately run mobile-phone system has been a litany of wasteful duplication in over-serviced cities and blackholes of no coverage elsewhere. Ask anyone outside the capitals and anything more than a few kilometres outside a major town.
Once the two communications systems are finished, the telecommunications companies could all compete madly to use them and retail services through them. That would be effective competition that would benefit consumers in a market that would work.
Telstra is now a nasty hybrid and consumers get the worst of both worlds: precious little government universal service obligation and not enough competition dividend in form of lower prices.
Australia needs universal high-speed internet. The present model of a partially privatised Telstra is not delivering. It is no good Communications Minister Helen Coonan saying consumers in the capitals are not complaining. Most are not. But enterprises that want to do business over the net Australia-wide are. They are having to design their sites to cater for dial-up.
Moreover, reasonable quality video is not possible over much of what Australia calls broadband. This denies us things like medical diagnostics, sensible video-conferencing and a thousand other business applications in addition to entertainment.
Now that Telstra is not going ahead, hopes rest with a consortium of nine other telco players. But it will either not get off the ground or end in tears and squabbling.
I know governments do not build big infrastructure projects these days. Well, at least not under their own banner. But in reality they do large amounts of infrastructure-building under the banner of others – usually big corporations.
Look at the millions of taxpayers’ dollars the NSW and Victorian Governments poured into the tollways via public-private partnerships, tax breaks, roadwork guarantees and the like.
Look at Telstra. If it had gone ahead with the internet system is would have been a project conducted by a 51.3 per cent government-owned body. And even if the T3 sale had gone ahead and Telstra had been fully privatised, a lot of shares would have been bought by the Government’s Future Fund.
So a lot of it is sleight of hand and what’s in a name. Much of it is ideology. Very little is doing what works. Very little is nation-building in the Menzies or Chifley mould.
Governments say they should not own things because the money is better used for health, education and police. Well, an internet system would be for health, education and police.
The Government warbles on about international competitiveness when it is on its band-wagon of industrial relations and the ports. Well, international competitiveness in telecommunications is as important. New Zealand is about to overtake us. Half a dozen Third World countries have better television, mobile and internet services than we do, let alone the developed world.
Forget selling Telstra. Buy it back and cut it into two, privatising just the retail arm.
And speaking, as Menzies did, of central power in the Commonwealth of Australia, the 1901 Federal Constitution provides that the Commonwealth Parliament has power to make laws with respect to “post, telegraph and other like services”.
It is as if the Founding Fathers had some prescience. All we need is a Government to get on with it.