* Greens less inclined to support Telstra split
* Greens demand more information from government
* Govt refuses, vote unlikely before May
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, March 17 (Reuters) - The Australian government’s plan to force a break-up of the country’s largest phone company, Telstra (TLS.AX), suffered a setback on Wednesday when the influential Greens party signalled fading support for the move.
The Greens, who sometimes have the casting vote in the upper house Senate, could sink a key plank of the government’s telecoms reform agenda, which would split off Telstra’s fixed-line network and use it to help build a $39 billion fast broadband network.
Telstra shares slumped steadily to record lows after the break-up plan was announced in September, but the stock has rallied 4 percent in the past week on doubts that the government can get its Telstra break-up bill through the Senate.
“It’s basically burning the goodwill of the crossbenches,” Greens Senator Scott Ludlam told reporters, accusing the government of failing to cooperate with the Greens.
“The minister has been saying trust us on the NBN (National Broadband Network) legislation for more than a year, and I’m afraid around here trust these days is in very short supply.”
The stock ticked up after the Greens’ comments, firming 1 percent to A$3.14, outperforming the wider market.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy declined on Wednesday to meet a Greens’ demand to release a key study into the design of the broadband network, risking the anger of the seven cross-bench senators whose votes are crucial to approving it.
“It is not uncommon, and in fact is sensible, responsible and appropriate, for governments to take some time to consider reports they receive before decisions are made about release and next steps,” Conroy told parliament.
The Greens, though broadly supportive of the move and counting five of the cross-bench senators, want to see the study before finalising their voting position.
“It’s a refusal to comply with an order for the production of documents. On a project of this scale, that’s a very serious thing for the minister to do,” Ludlam said.
“I would say that with the amount of bad faith that’s been generated in this debate so far, it’s a really foolhardy move.”
Doubts about the government’s reforms ignited on Monday when it delayed debating them in the Senate as scheduled, though Conroy said later that the government was still committed to the reforms and it would bring on a Senate debate this week.
The government wants Telstra to separate its wholesale infrastructure from its retail operations, so its network of exchanges can be rolled in to the new broadband network.
If passed, the bill would force a “functional separation” of Telstra, unless the company voluntarily separates its network and retail operations.
Ludlam said he did not expect a vote on the legislation when debate resumed in parliament on Thursday, as the main conservative opposition was adopting delaying tactics. That would push a vote back until May.
The bills would also bar Telstra from acquiring specific wireless broadband spectrum, unless it separates the two arms of its business, and force it to divest its hybrid coaxial cable network and its 50 percent stake in Foxtel, Australia’s biggest cable television service provider.
Editing by Mark Bendeich