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Greens Senator suggests he might vote for the sale of Telstra in exchange for environmental concessions.



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MARK COLVIN: The Greens Senator, Bob Brown, is not usually one for making backroom deals, so he caused some amazement in the national capital, today, by suggesting he might horse trade on Telstra. Senator Brown this morning floated the idea of a vote for a fully privatised Telstra but only in exchange for big environmental concessions. The Prime Minister declared himself fascinated by the prospect but, as Bob Brown may have suspected all along, he didn’t sound ready to make big concessions when it came to trees. Shane McLeod reports from Canberra.

 

SHANE McLEOD: The business of politics often comes down to a game of numbers, and when it comes time for the government to try to sell off the rest of Telstra, its magic number will be four—that’s the number of Senate votes it would need to get the legislation necessary through the upper house—and today, it seems the Prime Minister’s calculations can now include long-time privatisation opponent, Greens Senator, Bob Brown.

 

BOB BROWN: I think the government is being very serious about the sale of Telstra. We’re opposed to that; the Greens are opposed to that as a social justice party; but if the government wants to levy issues like the environment with the Senate, then let it take on the big issues.

 

JOHN HOWARD: I’d be interested in talking to Senator Brown about the circumstances under which the Greens might support, at some time in the future, a further sale of shares in Telstra. I should make it clear that our election commitment holds—that is, until services in the bush are up to scratch there will be no further shares in Telstra sold.

 

SHANE McLEOD: But the Greens Senator is setting the bar very high if there is to be any deal making.

 

BOB BROWN: I am putting the option to the Greens National Council which is in Melbourne this weekend, and I want that debate within the Greens and within the public arena. If the government is going to do the right thing here, it should retain ownership of Telstra and act on those environmental issues, but this government is way short of seeing the national interest at that level. It wants to trade the environment; therefore it has to make some hard decisions.

 

SHANE McLEOD: It appears to be a case of wanting to remain relevant in the debate over Telstra’s future. Bob Brown believes the mood is drifting towards an eventual sell-off of Telstra, and if environmental outcomes are once again tied to the deal, he wants to make sure it’s the Greens who set the criteria, not the government. Getting the issue on the agenda of his party’s meeting this weekend will give him the organisational backing from which to approach any negotiations, but are the Greens likely to support a change to their policy? Outgoing national convener, Gurm Sekhon, doesn’t think so.

 

GURM SEKHON: The motion as written is reconfirming the current position of opposing the sale of Telstra, and it is my understanding—from my reading of delegates around the country—that this is the overwhelming position that will be voted.

 

SHANE McLEOD: Those close to the Greens Senator aren’t sure what decisions, if any, they’ll come away with from the weekend meeting, but the flagging of a possible change in Greens policy has drawn critics, like Labor and the Democrats, who remain opposed to any further Telstra sale. Democrats leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, believes a Greens deal would amount to a betrayal.

 

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Senator Bob Brown went to the election promising, promising that he would never, ever sell Telstra. So I am often surprised when politicians make very strong promises, blatant promises, and then renege on them or are seen to do a policy backflip, and that is what this looks like.

 

SHANE McLEOD: Bob Brown has taken many by surprise by putting Telstra on the Greens’ radar. How far he’ll get with his party’s machinery at the weekend remains to be seen, although it is apparent his passions of native forest protection and an end to land clearing now rank ahead to his opposition to selling the telco. The conditions on which he would agree to a sale are likely to be too much for the Prime Minister, but by staking out his claim, Bob Brown is setting the rules by which he would become involved in any deals, deals which—in the past—he believes have failed to deliver significant benefits for Australia’s environment.

 

MARK COLVIN: Shane McLeod.