Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday denied his party was attempting to “wreck” Labor’s National Broadband Network project, insisting opposing the project was the right thing to do, despite apparent widespread support for the project from much of the public, stakeholders in the technology sector and critical minor parties and independents in parliament.
The $43 billion project emerged as a key difference between the two major parties during the recent Federal Election, with industry slamming the Coalition’s rival broadband policy and several of the independents stating Labor’s NBN policy was one of the major reasons they supported a Gillard Government to take office.
Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam — whose party also supports the policy — has warned the Coalition not to “wreck it”. But, in a wide-ranging discussion with journalists at his electorate office in Sydney yesterday, Turnbull remained firm in the Coalition’s opposition to the project (video above by iTNews).
“I’m not seeking to wreck or destroy … my objective is to get some real transparency and accountability on this,” he said. “We need to have a more informed debate about it, the Government is talking about spending a really stupendous amount of money, and our job in the opposition is to hold them account to that.”
Turnbull rejected the idea that it was fruitless for the Coalition to oppose the NBN at this point, with fibre currently being rolled out around the nation. “The idea that we should just wave it through, because it’s politicially expedient, I mean — I wasn’t elected to parliament to just look the other way when billions of dollars are potentially being wasted,” he said.
Turnbull gave the example of the Coalition’s stance on Labor’s $42 billion economic stimulus package to justify its stance on broadband.
“In February 2009, when I was still Leader of the Opposition, we opposed the stimulus package. We basically said they should spend a bit less than half as much,” he said. “And that was a very unpopular decision.”
“But if we hadn’t done that, we would never have had a legitimate basis for criticising the pink batts fiasco, or for criticising the waste and mismanagement in the school halls program. So sometimes in politics, you’ve got to do what’s right, even though it may not be immediately electorally enticing.”
The Shadow Communications Minister also appeared to hold out hope that Labor’s hold on power may not last the full electoral term. “We could be back at the polls … the independents could change their mind. I think it’s very unlikely that they will, but they could, theoretically, or we could be back at the polls in a few months, who knows,” he said.
Turnbull said when he was out in his electorate taking down his election posters, every second passer-by had asked him why he didn’t just leave them up.
Asked whether he thought it was politically dangerous for the Coalition to frame the NBN debate in financial terms, Turnbull questioned what other way it should be framed — given the obvious technical supremacy of fibre-optic cable over other broadband solutions.
He wasn’t aware of any polling that the Coalition had conducted with the population to determine what percentage of Australians were concerned about the financial side of the NBN rollout, joking that the nation would be tired of polling after the recent election.
Yesterday Turnbull also reiterated much of the Coalition’s previous criticism of the NBN project — repeating calls for a cost-benefit analysis to be conducted into the rollout and arguing broadly that there was a need to go back to the heart of the NBN project and examine what the real problem was with broadband in Australia that needed to be solved.
“The first thing you want to ask is what are we seeking to achieve here? And ask what are the ways of doing that,” he said.
The relationship with NBN Co
During the election, the Coalition’s finance spokesperson Andrew Robb labeled the NBN Company’s staff as “talentless”, and the company as a “stodgy government bureaucracy”.
The claims spurred a fiery response from NBN Co, with senior NBN Co executive Kevin Brown telling the company’s staff in an internal email that the comments were unjustified and “ill-informed cheap shots”.
But Turnbull said he wasn’t aware of the comments, when asked if it would have been better if the Coalition left personal attacks out of the election cycle. The politician said he hadn’t met with NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley yet – but was planning to meet with the broadband chief on 8 October.
“I don’t know him, don’t have a relationship with him — looking forward to having one,” said Turnbull.