Labour queries telco commissioner appointment
Labour communications spokeswoman Clare Curran says the Government's decision not to reappoint Ross Patterson as Telecommunications Commissioner may be ''illegal'', but some telcos and consumer groups have adopted a more sanguine view.
Communications Minister Amy Adams announced yesterday that economist Stephen Gale had been appointed to the role for a five-year term, starting next Thursday, on her recommendation.
That was on the advice of an ''independent panel'' which had considered 43 other candidates, including Patterson, who had sought a second five-year term but was rebuffed.
Curran said the advertisement for the position contained errors that wrongly described the regulator's role as applying the statutory regime that existed in 2006 when the operational separation of Telecom was in force.
She intended to refer the matter to the Auditor-General but said her concerns about the appointment extended beyond the wording of the job ads.
''The Government had clearly signalled it wanted to get rid of Patterson who has maintained a strong independent role as the watchdog for the important telco industry,'' she said.
The Government had a conflict of interest with regard to the appointment as it was investing $1.35 billion in ultrafast broadband, she said.
''It is of major concern if the new direction taken by the telecommunications commissioner role is to focus on the interests of investors, rather than consumers.''
Gale, who holds a doctorate in physics from Cambridge University, England, has been an associate member of the commission for two years.
Adams said he impressed the panel with his ''wide range of experience in regulated industries and his ability to articulate the role of the regulator to promote the interests of consumers through encouraging competition and ensuring that investors have the incentives to invest over the long-term''.
Despite having to be prodded a few times by former Communications Minister Steven Joyce before recommending the regulation of mobile termination rates last year, Patterson has increasingly been portrayed as an aggressive consumer champion.
That mantle has grown since it was rumoured he might not secure a second term and after the commission decided last year to consider whether Sky's dominance of the pay-television industry could hinder the uptake of ultrafast broadband.
That's despite the commission's final report on that issue, released last week, being criticised by TelstraClear and MediaWorks for being all talk and no action.
TelstraClear said it had worked closely with ''many telecommunications commissioners over the years and looked forward to the same with Dr Gale''. Vodafone said it also looked forward to working with him.
A source said Gale's experience in other industries, including the electricity industry, had appealed to the Government as investors were calling for consistency in decisions affecting regulated industries such as telecommunications, electricity, gas distribution and airports.
Patterson was not out-of-favour as such, but five years was a ''pretty long stint'' and Gale was simply judged the stronger candidate, he said. Patterson stood down from the role between September 2008 and July 2009 while being treated for alcoholism, which one political pundit speculated might still be being held against him.
Bronwyn Howell, general manager of the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation at Victoria University, said the most notable difference was Gale was an economist while Patterson and his predecessor Douglas Webb were both lawyers.
But she said the freedom of action that came with the role could be overstated.
''The commissioner is required to make decisions within the framework of legislation, which is pretty clear about what can and can't be done and is very limited in their ability to take unilateral action.''
Also ''all meaningful decisions'' were made by a panel of commissioners and needed to be ratified by the minister, she said.
Telecommunications Users Association chief executive Paul Brislen said he trusted Gale would put consumers to the front of all the work he did.
Patterson was always easy to deal with and was willing to help ''nut out decisions behind closed doors, as long as the job got done'', he said.
Big tasks in front of Gale include:
* Deciding by August how much companies should pay to access Chorus' copper phone lines after the Government ordered urban and rural prices be replaced by a uniform national rate.
* Considering whether cuts to mobile termination rates have done enough to improve mobile market competition, or whether further direct action is required to prevent carriers from charging customers higher prices to call or text people on networks other than their own.
- © Fairfax NZ News