Back from the dead

By Toby Walker

The Howard Government has been spared the embarrassment of a failed $1.5million investment after its flagship regional carrier, Norlink Communications, traded its way out of administration this week.

Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran was sent searching for answers after he was blindsided by Labor revelations that the government-backed telco had been in the hands of administrators since May.

In 2001 the Howard Government sunk $1.5million from the initial sale of Telstra into Norlink with the aim of nurturing a local company that could rectify the inequities of communications in the Northern Rivers.

But according to former Norlink CEO Keith Davidson, delays in the launch of its wireless broadband service had crippled the company's growth aspirations.

Specifically, he said Soul Pattinson Telecommunications, the business charged with connecting the provider's tower equipment to its internet handoff in Lismore, had taken '18 months to do three months work'.

"There's a number of other commercial issues that I won't canvass here but those delays were extensive and the catalyst for the operational issues that Norlink suffered," he said.

Mr Davidson said the company had signed off on a deal with creditors on Tuesday which would allow it to continue providing Internet services under the new name Regional Telecom.

With the Nationals' demands for communications standards in the bush dominating recent media reports, Page MP Ian Causley yesterday said Telstra should take a portion of the blame for Norlink's near-demise.

"If someone comes into an area with new technology (like Norlink did) ... the next day Telstra floods in with all of their salespeople to offer a cheap deal on ADSL and just try to cut off the competition," he said.

He said the need to separate Tesltra's distribution and sales arms to allow for a transparent and fair system of competition was a key part of the Nationals' demands as part of the Howard Government's sale.

But former Norlink board member Glen McCarthy dismissed Mr Causley's finger-wagging as nothing more than a diversion from the Howard Government's long-standing plans to sell off the national Telco.

"All of these smaller firms like Norlink that the Government has tried to kick off are just a facade by the Government for their long-term plan to sell Tesltra off," he said.

"And I believe Ian Causley's got a lot to answer for when he said ... that Barnaby Joyce should be expelled from the National Party.

"The person that should be expelled is Causley for having the audacity to condemn someone who was trying to do something for the farmers."

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