This evening I had the pleasure of helping present the Libertarianz submission of the Telecommuniations Amendment Act. This is the local-loop unbundling legislation which gives TelstraClear and a bunch of other grubby companies the green light to rummage through Telecom’s exchanges in the name of competition. Of course this is well-intentioned but misguided and ultimately morally wrong, since competition requires a free market, and a free market requires property rights.
Phil came along for moral support, and I sat beside Bernard Darnton and Colin Cross, both experienced Libz submission-presenters. When we got into the room, which was a bit small and crowded, Vodafone were finishing their presentation. Asked about the potential for their own mobile industry to suffer similar regulation, they tried to insist it wasn’t relevant to the current bill, but were offered the spine-chilling advice “Sleep with one eye open.” Maurice Williamson may have said it in jest, but if I had Vodafone stock, I’d be thinking of selling it right now.
Vodafone were followed by the Business Round Table, who gave a good, confident presentation in general but didn’t have the balls to insist on a fully free-market approach, only insisting that the magnitude of harm inflicted on Telecom by the bill meant that the shareholders should receive some compensation.
Then it was our turn. I was pretty nervous, but I went ahead and gave my pre-prepared speech anyway.
Every person and organisation has natural property rights. The right to control and use your assets and abilities as you see fit is essential to society. Without property rights, there is no freedom. If you cannot control or use your own assets, they do not belong to you anymore. They have been stolen from you.
The proposed Telecommuncations Amendment Bill further violates Telecom’s property rights by removing their exclusive control and use of their telephone exchanges. That’s wrong.
But the Bill doesn’t stop there, does it? It goes on to exert control over the right of Telecom to sign voluntary contracts with other parties. If the Commerce Commission doesn’t like the terms of a contract, Telecom isn’t allowed to make it. The right of parties to freely make and agree to contracts should never be abridged. We aren’t talking about children buying cigarettes here. We’re talking about experienced commercial entities who know what they are doing. They should allowed to sign whatever contracts they like. But they can’t. That’s wrong.
The Bill also misses out some important factors influencing investment in telecommunications infrastructure, which is the Resource Management Act (1991). This Act makes investment more difficult, more expensive, unpredictable and further infringes on private property rights. For example, the RMA makes building cellphone towers more expensive and difficult if not impossible. This hinders competition; the very competition that the Telecommunications Amendment Bill seeks to enhance. We recommend an inquiry into the effect of the RMA on infrastructure investment in the telecommunications industry.
The commission was actually very friendly and receptive to our comments, possibly because Labour’s Shane Jones was replaced by National’s Lockwood Smith as chairman. They were particularly interested in our ideas for a milestone clause to stop the regulation after its goals have been achieved, and removing specific mention of Telecom from the Bill (replacing it with “access provider”).
It was a friendly, fairly streamlined process, and I was quite happy with the response of the MPs. Phil reports that in the audience, some people picked up our submission and made positive comments. We retired to the Backbencher pub to report to our secret-squirrel collaborator, and had a beer to celebrate a successful submission.
If I was going to repeat the process, I would have focussed less on the moral imperatives of private property rights, and more on our actual proposals to improve the Act. But I’m happy enough that I got to tell some bureaucrats that their law was morally wrong.