A clear conflict of interest

The Telecommunications Users Association (TUANZ) has the tricky job of representing the interests of telco customers while counting among its members some of those same telcos.

The Telecommunications Users Association (TUANZ) has the tricky job of representing the interests of telco customers while counting among its members some of those same telcos. How does it do that? "With total integrity," says its chief excutive, Ernie Newman. The issue becomes all the more intriguing as submissions are made to the government's telecommunications inquiry. TUANZ, as you'd expect from an organisation whose aim is to be "the user's champion in the knowledge economy", has been busily writing them; first, in response to the inquiry's issues paper and, again, after the three-person inquiry team released its draft report. You'd expect TUANZ to be playing an active part in proceedings because, as it claims on its Web site, the fact that an inquiry's actually under way can be attributed in large part to its lobbying of the Labour Party in the run up to last year's election. Clear Communications, the country's second biggest phone company, has also been beavering away, knocking out a 638-page submission following the issues paper release and 254 pages in answer to the draft report. I mention Clear because there's an interesting connection between it and TUANZ: not only is Clear a member of the association but one of its senior staff, data services manager Jane Hindle, is a TUANZ board member and on a sub-committee responsible for putting together the user group's inquiry submissions. I don't mean to remotely suggest any impropriety in Hindle's work on the sub-committee. Indeed, TUANZ's Newman says he's careful to ensure Clear's interests aren't being promoted and that "representation to the government through the inquiry is absolutely end-user focused". Newman also points out that Hindle's TUANZ work began before she was hired by Clear. That's all very reassuring but I wonder whether it's good enough. It's one thing to be a member of an organisation that's lobbying for law changes affecting a competitor, but another to be a principal architect of the proposed change. It just doesn't look good. I can anticipate some of the arguments which might be offered in support of what seems to me to be a clear (pardon the pun) conflict of interest: New Zealand has only a small community of telecomms experts and we can't afford to be fussy about connections they might have in the industry; carriers have a role to play in what's essentially a user group. Neither of those is convincing, however. Surely TUANZ has enough members to draw from who feel sufficiently strongly about issues like local loop unbundling for someone else to have taken Hindle's place on the sub-committee? That not having been the case gives telecommunications users the right to question whether the association truly represents their interests.

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