The Guardian • Issue #2079


Let’s hang up

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2079

Is your phone okay? This jokey casual question became an urgent one this month as over ten million Optus customers lost phone coverage, and ‘outage’ became the word of the day. It was no laughing matter either – this wasn’t just not being able to get through to a mate. The outage affected small businesses, hospitals, trains, and water services. Ironically, it also affected the giant authoritarian Home Affairs department, put together by privatisation-loving Coalition government. 

So, after hundreds of millions of dollars lost, much by people who can’t afford it, lives endangered, train safety put at risk, you’d expect some pretty drastic action wouldn’t you? You’d be disappointed. Government ministers muttered feeble words about the importance of choice – as though the real victims of the disaster were private phone companies worrying about being nationalised. NSW Premier Chris Minns called the outage “deeply regrettable.” Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has told her department to establish a ‘post-incident review’ to look at ‘regulatory settings’ and no doubt choose which sort of lettuce leaf to use for Optus’ slap on the wrist.

This issue is part of a wider pattern – privatisation and marketisation. It’s the reason why Price Waterhouse Coopers got to advise the Australian Tax Office and at the same time advise Google and Apple on how to dodge tax. It’s why TAFEs are starved of funds while dodgy private training organisations set up ‘visa mills’ and enrol people in badly taught courses.

The worship of the market means that consequences are limited. In Optus’ case, the vague promise of future regulation, maybe. In the case of the private TAFE replacements, some of the more outrageous rorters were fined or closed down, but the rotten system was left in place. It’s the neoliberal way: the government promises to be stricter in future, makes a show of disciplining the ‘bad apples’ and all is well until the next time. Optus customers might be having déjà vu just now – it was only September 2022 when Optus was hacked, and massive amounts of customer data stolen. Optus responded by telling customers to watch out for suspicious transactions, like it was their job to fix the company’s mistake.

We’re still waiting to see what will happen about the latest outage, but it’s very likely it will be the individual customer’s responsibility to fix it up, fill in forms, and hassle Optus for compensation.

So what’s the solution? Just having the system we have now but with more safeguards? Regulations? An inquiry which hopefully isn’t just kicking the problem into the long grass?

The real problem here is the market-worship that led us to having a multitude of lightly-supervised private phone companies in the first place, with market–worshipping governments promising to go easy on them. What’s really needed is a system that has working people at the centre, instead of putting them at the service of corporations. We have a parliament in which both of the major parties are on a unity ticket when it comes to keeping companies like Optus and Qantas happy. The ALP and the Coalition just disagree on details, like how lightly to treat private companies.

Optus customers stressing out about lost data and wondering if they’ll ever get compensation for lost income must feel like they’re working for Optus without pay. What we need is a socialist system where phone companies work for us.

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