Nicholas Brown reviews John Doyle’s Crossed Lines: Disruption, Politics and Reshaping Australian Telecommunications  (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2022).


Crossed Lines tracks an archetypical story in the undoing of the ‘Australian settlement’  – a ‘transition from a system of rigid state monopolies in the 1960s to a competition-based model in the 1990s’ (p.193). John Doyle’s focus on the telecommunications sector makes this familiar narrative a much more complex, engrossing and educative saga.  The taken-for-granted dimensions of government-provided telephone services at the beginning of his period, heavily subsidised from Treasury appropriations as a ‘community service obligation’ to ensure equal and affordable access, by its end encompassed the technological and commercial transformations of the digital age with associated demands on investment and profit, and scrutiny of the efficiency and accountability of public and/or private enterprise. That process tested powerful interests, values and personalities. One player, Gareth Evans, observed of his time as minister for Transport and Communications (1987-1988) that ‘everyone got roughly fifty percent of what they asked for’ (p.149). Such compromise was not always happy, hit big obstacles, and left citizens less well served than they might have been in meeting the mounting pressures for productivity that were also part of the agenda of the times. Doyle tells a most instructive tale.

Advertising promotional still for the installation of telephones in the home, 1949 (State Library of Victoria)

The need for telecommunications reform was already apparent in the 1960s. The Postmaster General’s Department (PMG) was a ‘colossus’ in its size, appetite for revenue, capacity to influence local trades and manufacturing, and control over the pace with which new services were adopted. This dominance was concerning, but responses to it reflected tensions within as well as between the major parties. In 1971 telephone installation fees met at most three per cent of costs but the Country Party still expected people in rural areas to pay no more than those in the cities for their service. Whitlam’s Labor government had its own discomfort with a ‘non-means-tested form of social policy’ (p.31), especially since it had other programs more directly addressing need in education, health and social security. But tackling large activist unions – representing half of the Commonwealth Public Service, particularly its technical/professional grades – was no less daunting for Labor than for the coalition.

A constant theme for Doyle is that all governments wrestled with the same problems. PMG seemed unassailable, not least because of its cultivated opacity regarding internal budgeting. The Liberals might push for business principles, Labor for financial efficiency. Both were met with intransigence. PMG management warned that reforms would undermine the capacity to meet ‘universal’ obligations. Unions opposed automation. The separation of telephone services into Telecom in 1975 was intended to bring enterprise discipline but also consolidated monopoly in provision. Around this monolith, other agencies – such as the Overseas Telecommunication Commission or Aussat – struggled to preserve autonomy (the former) or were crippled in their capacity to compete (the later). The outcome, Doyle argues, was an increasingly ‘risk averse policy environment’ (p.87). Several external inquiries traversed essentially established issues which – given an essentially political impasse – remained ‘somewhere between perilously complicated and utterly insoluble’ (p.95).

Through an impressive range of interviews, archival research and a keen sense of the role of officials and ministers, Doyle presents this gridlock as one of genuine intricacy rather than simply awaiting a saviour. If his account ends up fulsomely endorsing the reforms of 1990 as ‘a valiant effort’ to reconcile ‘liberalisation’ in competitive tendering and ‘Labor sensibilities’ in terms of public provision (p.142), he does not minimise conflicts along the way. It took a while for telecommunications to become central to Labor’s agenda, in part given Hawke’s closeness to its union leaders and the intimidating politicking of Telecom itself. Gradually the pace was forced by pressures including new technologies, the need to ‘beef up’ government operations for privatisation, the mantra of structural reform and the regulatory scrutiny of fundamental conflicts of interest in Telecom’s roles. As minister in 1990-91, Kim Beazley favoured a consolidated Telecom as a ‘national champion’ that could compete in international markets. Informed by a fresh specialisation in internal expertise, many of his senior staff did not agree but loyally followed their minister. A bitter Cabinet debate with Paul Keating, who favoured full network competition but was also jockeying for the top job, ended in another compromise, one – as Doyle argues – which left a sector a little more open if still ‘handicapped by an insurmountable power imbalance’ (p.207) that would endure into the protracted broadband delivery debates of the 2000s.

Doyle comes to this study with considerable ‘industry experience’. This shows in his subtle attention to the internal dynamics of policy development. He can tend to see union leaders and Telecom executives as ciphers for generic ‘vested interests’, but that in itself compounds the value of this study in insisting on the complexity of reform from within, and on never taking for granted the costs inherent in the services that (for some of us) are there with a touch of the keypad.



Nicholas Brown
Nicholas Brown

Nicholas Brown is a professor in the School of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU. His research interests include the history of public policy development in twentieth century Australia.