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QANTAS boss Geoff Dixon boldly put into words what some business leaders are privately thinking when he launched a stinging attack on the modus operandi of Allan Fels. He said the well-honed knack of the ACCC chief in “drawing attention to unproven allegations against companies” had the potential to extract an instant penalty and cause long-term damage to their reputations.

Mr Dixon believes the commission is “an aggressive organisation by any stretch of the imagination”, and should be made to pull its head in.

Sheriff Fels may have overstepped the mark when he sent a 90-strong posse of lawyers into the offices of the major oil companies, following a tip from an anonymous whistleblower. It will be many months before we learn if there is any substance to the suspicion of petrol price fixing.

The ACCC has grown from a consumer protection watchdog into a rottweiler roaming the neighbourhood looking for corporate flesh to sink its teeth into.

Allan Fels, who was brought up in Cottesloe and went to the University of WA, is already the most powerful man in Australia, elected or otherwise. He is seeking yet more powers under the Trade Practices Act.

Communications Minister Richard Alston seems eager to give them to him. Senator Alston chose a day when Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski and chairman Bob Mansfield were overseas to unilaterally deliver a hammer blow to the group. Competitors could scarcely conceal their glee when they learned Telstra was going to be forced to disclose separate accounts for its retail and wholesale businesses. That free-kick to the opposition was one thing, but Senator Alston’s decision to remove Telstra’s right to appeal against ACCC rulings was breathtaking, and should be reversed.

Professor Fels has always displayed an egotistical certainty that he is the only man who can achieve the delivery of competitive goods and services at reduced prices to a grateful Australian public. Senator Alston, on the other hand, gives the increasing impression that he is losing his grip on his complex portfolio, after six years in the job. The telecommunication and media industries are a shambles. Faced with the need to adjudicate on the mooted merger between the pay TV companies Foxtel and Optus, Senator Alston has typically gone outside his department for advice – and where else but to uncle Allan at the ACCC, who might just block the whole thing. Prime Minister John Howard should do a quick reshuffle to bring in a new communications minister, with the necessary skills to balance consumer protection with commercial reality.

Nearly two million Telstra shareholders, including the government with its 50.01 per cent holding, have watched in horror as the share price has been slashed to $4.70, first by a perception that the regulatory noose is being tightened around Telstra, and then by a distinctly on-the-nose quarterly sales report. It is facile to blame the sagging share price on the horrendous problems among telco companies in the US and Europe. They were caused by wildly over-optimistic forecasts of the growth in the phones market, which has left them with vast excess capacity. Perhaps Telstra, which generates $6.6 billion of cashflow annually, could use its somewhat bloated balance sheet to buy some deeply distressed overseas assets. But nothing please on the scale of the ill-fated foray into Hong Kong, when Richard Li and his ramped up Pacific Century Cyberworks said “come in spinner” to the Australians.

It would be too unkind to suggest that Ziggy and his team have not yet demonstrated the ability to run a country video shop, still less grow a 21st century communications conglomerate. But a few more dud sets of num-bers and the markets would be clamouring for big heads to roll.

The Government has now got Buckley’s chance of getting the T3 privatisation away at anything like the $5.49 a share ambition that Peter Costello accidentally let slip last year – and that is going to leave a very big hole in the next couple of budgets.

The sulky stock market is taking a pickaxe handle to any company that disappoints expectations. The dive in Telstra is almost certainly overdone. But the only good reason for bottom fishers to buy the shares at the current level is the 4.67 per cent fully franked yield on offer. Even that is not a cast-iron certainty.

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