This final conflict was fanned at the Melbourne Press Club's luncheon, with Telstra's Public Policy & Communications man Dr Phil Burgess the guest speaker. Burgess was breathing fire, continuing his vigourous assault on the ACCC, and its head Graeme Samuel, over what Telstra perceives as the unfair regulatory burden imposed on Telstra. No doubt the fine detail of the speech will be reported and dissected by the assembled media (and besides, Phil promised it would soon be online for the world to see at Now We Are Talking), but there are a few observations that struck me about Burgess's performance.
- By his own admission, Phil Burgess loves a fight. He said several times that he wouldn't be backing away from an argument, and he saw it as healthy within a democracy that competing opinions be aired, and sensible ideas be turned into policy and poor ideas exposed as such and ignored. The take-away message from today's speech was that the ACCC was a "Rogue Regulator", acting beyond the mandate given to it by the government and acting in a way that wasn't in the government's interests. It was an interesting line to run, and suggests that Telstra's stratergy is to drive a wedge between the government and regulator, a charge which Burgess coyly denied in a door-stop interview afterwards.
- There was a really interesting analysis in the difference between the way that lobbying and regulation occurs in Australia compared to overseas, most notably the US. In Australia, corporate lobbyists approach the government directly, and put their case straight to the decision makers. In the US, lobbyists put their arguments to the people and try to build popular support for their cause. Telstra have deliberately taken the US approach to lobbying the ACCC (and by extention, the Government) over price-setting for competitors' access to Telstra-owned infrastructure.
- Burgess doesn't suffer fools gladly. Your fearless correspondent asked a slightly sneaky question about whether it was a mistake for the government to keep the infrastructure and retail divisions of Telstra together for the privatisation given the long subsequent dispute that has arisen about competitor's access. Burgess was spitting back questions in response, giving plenty of chin music (a term that I just discovered crosses the Pacific) and aggressively challenging those who asked him questions.
- Somehow Burgess managed to keep a straight face as he played the Good Ol' Aussie Company card, hinting that Telstra should be treated better than it's foreign-owned rivals Optus (Singapore), Vodafone (UK) and Hutchison (Hong Kong). Despite his American drawl, Burgess was desperate to show that he was Australian as Apple Pie. Or something like that.
- Telstra seems to be paranoid about its public image. The Burgess enterage seemed to include at least half a dozen assistants and media advisers, helping to keep the main man on message and focussed.
Seeing Burgess in full-flight is strangely exhilirating. There's a definite contrast between Burgess's style, and the lethargic Australian approach to corporate PR. Australians don't generally like someone who big-notes themselves, but Burgess is strangely charming. He's here for the war, not for the peace, and he seems doggedly determined to win the battle.
UPDATE 5/12, 5:15pm: Dr Phil's speech is now online here (PDF).