No, no and no. We are not going to kick off the new telecom-munications regime — something that’s been described as world class, as something we should all be justifiably proud of after all we’ve put up with to get here — with back room shenanigans and closed-door deals.
I’m writing this on October 26 and it’s just been reported that the finance select committee has asked for an extension on its deadline to report back to parliament on the telco bill.
I’m all in favour of the select committee process. In a parliamentary arrangement such as ours, with only one house, there are too few safeguards as it is against rampant legislation of the kind we saw in the 1980s. The select committee, particularly in an MMP environment, is a vital component, designed to make sure rogue bills are stopped before they do any serious harm.
I’m also in favour of giving these committees the time they need to sort through the public submissions, the relevant documents, to learn the history that has led up to the introduction of whichever bill is being debated. There’s no point in going off half-cocked over something (anti-dog legislation springs to mind, but that might just be me), particularly when it has such an impact on so many aspects of New Zealand life.
However, to put off making a decision so you can wade through a fat wodge of material handed over by one of the major players in the industry with a clearly-defined vested interest, in a closed session with no public oversight, is just beyond the pale. It’s wrong on so many levels. First, it casts Telecom in the wrong light — something the company doesn’t need at this point, if its share price is anything to go by. Telecom didn’t ask for a closed-door meeting; the select committee did. Second, it sends the wrong message to the voters: “You are not going to be told what we’re discussing: it’s too sensitive for you.” Nothing gets the average voter’s back up more (well, apart from a rates rise) than being told they’re either not important enough to know or too stupid to be included. Just ask the Auckland councillors who thought it would be a great idea to have a closed-door session on spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a stadium.
Third, the old telco regime didn’t work in part because of secrecy. Those of us who watched the last attempt to fix the industry remember all too well how good it looked right up to the closed-door meeting Telecom had with the government. I can’t understand how any government official would think it a good idea that the rest of the industry pay Telecom to maintain its lines as part of the Kiwi Share agreement when Telecom was sold off at a discounted rate precisely to take into account the Kiwi Share. This time round, the whole process has to be public. It has to be out in the open, warts and all for anyone and everyone to see. Law, as has been said about justice, must not just be done, it must be seen to be done to be effective.
If we don’t trust this brave new world implicitly from the outset then there’s no point in pretending we’re doing anything but tweaking the existing environment and we’ve got to do a lot more than just that.