Regardless of whether the information in the wrongly tabled ACCC report on Telstra is damaging or not the most important issue is that it breaches the trust relationship that has been slowly re-established between the government and Telstra. It was therefore good to see the Minister apologising to Telstra’s CEO.
The company showed leadership by not immediately reacting to the report, but nevertheless it will not have been impressed by this accident.
As it is also not in the interest of the government it does appear to have been an honest mistake and not a deliberate leak. Nevertheless it has been a very careless and potentially damaging affair.
The major damage is not so much to the negotiations between the government and Telstra; the government, of course, already had all that information. Also most of the information was more or less known at a high level within the industry, albeit not at the detailed level provided in the report.
The main harm resulting from having this information made public is that competitors and others (such as the Opposition) can use it to get a deeper understanding of some of the issues Telstra has been grappling with and the accounting and strategy methods that Telstra has been using in these situations. It can also be used by competitors to check some of the issues that they themselves have been dealing with, and obviously people are already meddling in it for their own reasons.
It is important to make the point, however, that the report reflects a totally different Telstra. It goes back to a period when Telstra was at war with the government and wanted at all costs to protect its monopoly. Information that dates from such a period will be heavily tainted by the strategy of that time.
Under the new management Telstra’s position, strategy and relationship with the government is totally different and it is likely that a report written about Telstra today, with the company focussed on the future rather than the past, would be very different. Also, at this point in time, Telstra would probably have used certain information differently. Most data can be used to either undermine a case or to support one; it is often a matter of spin. In that respect the information in the report is less relevant.
Despite the unacceptable error, I believe that the relationship between Telstra and the government is sufficiently robust at present to weather this storm.
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