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April 18th, 2003

No alternative for Telstra, Australian Financial Review ,13 February 2003 . This piece provoked a hysterical letter from Alston, but lots of readers liked it, even if they didn’t agree with the policy conclusion, which was:

The problem neither party will talk about is Telstra’s ownership. Just as in structural terms (Telstra represents an unacceptable combination of natural monopoly communications services and vertically integrated content provision), the current half-private, half-public status is an unsustainable mess, as even the government that created it now admits.

Telstra should be renationalised and the peripheral businesses should be sold off. This could be done in many different ways, including legislation or through a takeover by a newly created government business enterprise.

This simple solution is unthinkable to politicians with a 1990s mindset such as Alston. But in the past few years, Britain in effect has renationalised its rail track network, the US has nationalised airport security and New Zealand has created a new publicly owned bank, among many other instances.

There are good arguments for and against public ownership in particular cases. But in Telstra’s case, to quote Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative.

There can be few ministers who’ve held on to an industry portfolio as long as Alston, while being derided by almost everyone involved in the industry. He’s even a favorite whipping boy overseas publications like the UK-based Register, which routinely runs headlines like This man must be the biggest luddite in history.

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