opinion There’s been a fair degree of animosity directed at Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the past 24 hours over his claim that there is no evidence that Australians would benefit from higher speeds than available under ADSL2+ broadband.
Over the past day, the one-time Opposition Leader and current Liberal NBN go-to guy has fielded insults from all sides. One reader described Turnbull on Twitter as “a lying luddite”, while another compared the member for Wentworth to former IBM president Thomas Watson, who famously predicted in 1943 that “there is a world market for maybe five computers”.
A third reader claimed Turnbull still lived “in the dark ages”, while another referenced Bill Gates’ famous statement that 640Kb of memory on a PC ought to be enough for everyone.
A number of readers noted that they used to have respect for Turnbull, referencing him as an inspirational leader with ideals. But that time had passed, many claimed. “Seriously, you are eroding your fine political capital quicker than a Toowoomba Queenslander in a flood,” wrote one wag — perhaps in poor taste given this week’s events in Queensland.
Personally, I believe Turnbull’s doing a fine job as Shadow Communications Minister, keeping Stephen Conroy and his pet NBN project accountable, and God knows Labor needs this kind of scrutiny. However, there is no doubt that the Liberal MP, despite all his gravitas, leadership ability and mental capacity, is foundering a bit right now.
The problem is a strategic one for Turnbull.
The Liberal MP is a tactical genius. His sustained attack on Labor over whether the NBN project needed a cost/benefit analysis bore strong fruit for the Coalition, garnering the support of many business leaders and polarising the community as to whether the project should go ahead immediately.
In parliament, Turnbull’s legislative moves — while broadly defeated — brought a degree of debate to the project which it had sadly been lacking, regular interjections from Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam notwithstanding. And Turnbull’s personal charisma has also held him in good stead, with many Australians favourably comparing the Liberal MP’s cool charm with the heated and arrogant Conroy.
However, the fact remains that Turnbull will only be able to do so much with the communications portfolio with the flawed Coalition policy he is attempting to push.
One fact stands in his way: By the time the next Federal Election rolls around in a few years, at least 1.7 million premises will be receiving NBN services. The Coalition simply cannot take a policy to the next election which consists of “dismantling” or halting the rollout of the NBN. It would be political suicide. Those Australians who had not yet received NBN services would revolt in mass as their glorious fibre-optic future was denied them.
I’m not sure whether Tony Abbott realises this — when I asked him directly about it several weeks ago, he avoided the question.
But Turnbull must.
The Shadow Communications Minister’s task over the next several years, if we wishes to truly debate the dynamics of the NBN, must be to reform Coalition telecommunications policy to include the NBN — and re-shape it in a more fiscally conservative image, if possible. Until Turnbull can achieve this feat — and this is best done as soon as possible — the Member for Wentworth will find all of his tactical victories to be hollow ones, because they will not address the Coalition’s wider policy challenges — and the core desires of the electorate.
The last thing I want to say about Turnbull, is, let’s give the poor man a break.
You have to admit, over the past couple of days, that the former Opposition Leader has fielded the tsunami of dissent directed at him on this site and others, as well as through social media channels, with extremely good grace.
“U old charmer,” Turnbull replied, upon being described as “a lying luddite” yesterday.
“And the fibre pits won’t flood?” he wrote, referring to Queensland’s current woes and the impact on the NBN. “Or will the NBN conquer gravity too?” He referred another critic to a series of papers on broadband, before asking whether their speed was “2slow4google”.
When we took the Liberal MP to task for issuing a media release on New Year’s Eve last year, he replied: “It is a working day Renai!!” And earlier, to another critic: “Rabid too? You cut me to the quick!”
So let’s not give up on Turnbull just yet. He’s not offended by the ferocious debate he’s engaged in, day in, day out, tweeting from his iPad in every free moment.
This intelligent, responsive, charismatic, technologically savvy and ambitious politician is currently barking up the wrong tree with respect to the NBN and feeding the public a lot of crap about speeds — even if his financial arguments are sound.
But many suspect he’s right now fighting his own battle inside the Liberal Party to get a worthy telecommunications policy up and drag the true luddite — Tony Abbott — into the twenty first century. So let’s give him a chance to do so before we damn him to the rubbish heap of failed Shadow Communications Ministers, where names like Tony Smith, Nick Minchin and Bruce Billson are engraved in rotting stone.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull