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Connect, not disconnect, with the bush

By Mark Christensen - posted Thursday, 10 February 2005

As a former country lad, I appreciate Senator Helen Coonan touring rural Queensland to discuss the sale of Telstra.

Sure, there's ample ideology and grabs for cash. But the bush air and hospitality offer her the best possible chance of rising above such cynicism to see the true reason for resistance to full privatisation: the loss of community and its impact on real business performance.

When my father used to drive into town for supplies, the blokes at the produce and hardware store knew him personally. My brother and I would often get testy sitting in the truck with our dog, Snoopy, while the old man performed the mandatory small talk - weather, advancements in dairy technology and the prospects of the local rugby league star making it in the city.


Growing up in the country 20 years ago, it was much easier to see the attributes that define a successful business. While there are still traces in small towns and family businesses today, people are anxious they may soon be lost forever.

A good business must have products customers really want, and at reasonable prices. Second, service must be excellent - someone who knows what they are talking about without being a sycophant or an over-bearing suggestive seller, armed with endless specs on every piece of merchandise available. The third ingredient is a mutual connection to a sense of shared destiny - however big or small. The coming together of a buyer and seller must be for something more than a mere transaction or query. Even speculation over whether it's going to rain again for show day can do the trick - if it's sincere. The most telling factor, however, is how these are prioritised.

Country folk see business success as starting with a common bond and then working your way down to "real" things like money and assets. This philosophy is difficult to pin down as it's based on a leap of faith: relate to people, and the rest will sort itself out. Resistance to the flogging off of Telstra is a plea to acknowledge the vicious cycle that occurs if this leap is not made.

Certain large companies extend themselves into the realm of service, but still hedge their bets. Service must constantly prove itself a worthy contributor before it's recognised as being valuable. Such a conservative mentality makes it practically impossible to embrace the even more elusive goal of a cohesive and civil society.

Without accepting a higher purpose, a major part of our lives - interaction with others for reasons of commerce - is becoming a mechanical and isolating event. The only thing we now have in common with the telephonist (if you are lucky enough to get one) or service counter attendant, is a nervous sense of estrangement.

This doesn't have to be the case with privatisation, but frequently is because executives are expected to make the link with community a residual rather than a defining quality. The impact has been evident with infrastructure reform in the UK, especially rail which was broken up and sold. "Under the former British Rail, operating managers attempted to do everything they could to minimise delays and keep the railway running," says Christian Wolmar in his book Broken Rails.


"They did not need the threat of fines or the possible loss of their franchise in order to do so. Their job was to operate the railway and they took pride in that task, often going well beyond their immediate responsibility. They saw themselves as a community."

People cling to the belief that public ownership at least gives them some hope of retaining some of the cultural positives Australia had before it become obsessed with economic efficiency. Opposition to the sale of Telstra is therefore not irrational. It's not against private enterprise or people making a fair quid. Nor does it necessarily mean the public want governments to run things again.

The frustration concerns the willingness of politicians and corporate types to believe the easy options are sufficient. Yes, broadband Internet in regional areas will make a few happy for a while, but real leadership should project a much bigger picture.

Coonan has made a good start by getting out and about. Hopefully, she has realised there is no way to automatically recover what people feel they are missing - or force Telstra to reprioritise its objectives. Attempting to use legislation or a service contract to define what really matters are proof you misunderstand bush culture and the Australian identity.

By all means detail such formalities, but never rely on them, for they cannot adequately capture the leap of faith required to make a business what people really expect it to be.

If the Senator connects with all this - and is willing to convey a heart-felt sentiment to Cabinet and Telstra's new CEO - then maybe she will get the result John Howard is after.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on February 4, 2005.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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