A landmark report handed down yesterday into the Coalition’s loss in the 2010 Federal Election has highlighted a failure to adequately respond to Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network plan as a key reason for losing valuable votes, especially in the sensitive Tasmanian electorate, which is receiving the network before the rest of the nation.
Yesterday, the Federal Executive of the Liberal Party held a full day meeting in Sydney to receive a formal presentation from former Howard minister Peter Reith (PDF), who the party had asked to produce a report on last year’s election loss, which resulted in a hung parliament and Labor being forced to partner with the Greens and independents to form government.
The majority of the report does not mention the NBN, but one section quotes extensively from a similar report produced last year by Sydney academic Julian Leeser into the Tasmanian leg of the election, which has been reported in brief.
“The failure to properly explain the Liberal Party’s broadband policy and the Labor Party’s effective scare campaign was a major cause of the party’s failure to win seats in Tasmania,” the report states. “This was the nearly universal review of people making submissions to the review and is borne out by research undertaken by the Liberal Party.”
“In the view of many, the party’s policy amounted to a threat to come into people’s homes and rip the Internet out of the wall.”
The report added that the NBN policy had a particularly strong effect on Tasmania for a number of reasons. For starters, the fibre network was already being rolled out in some towns, and Tasmania is also often behind the mainland in receiving new technology — so the early stage NBN rollout was seen as a boost to the state, as well as having flow-on effects in terms of jobs, for example.
In comparison, the Liberals’ policy was not as clear-cut as Labor’s.
“One of the problems of the broadband policy was that nowhere in the policy document was there any carve-out for Tasmania or any explanation of what the Liberal Party would do with existing infrastructure,” wrote Leeser in the report. “Numerous senior Liberals in Tasmania had raised the issue of broadband in Tasmania with senior Federal Liberals in Canberra, but a carve-out for Tasmania was forgotten.”
“The broadband policy was written at the last minute without a set of Tasmanian eyes cast over it. The party needs to make a clear and unambiguous statement about its intentions on broadband infrastructure in Tasmania in the future.”
Led by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the issue, Labor campaigned very hard on the NBN issue during the campaign, linking it to outcomes in health and education as well as fundamental economic reform in the telecommunications sector. Gillard in particular regularly mentioned the NBN policy in general speeches during the campaign.
In comparison, the Coalition suffered a number of missteps during the campaign.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did not mention his party’s broadband policy or Australia’s technology sector in general during the Coalition’s wide-ranging election campaign launch on Sunday, and the launch of the Coalition broadband policy was conducted by Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith and Finance Spokesperson Andrew Robb, with Abbott at an unrelated event that morning.
Abbott also appeared in a lengthy interview on the ABC’s 7:30 Report in which he appeared to display a lack of understanding of the Coalition’s broadband policy and repeatedly explained he was “no tech-head” and “no Bill Gates”. The policy in general was poorly received by the telecommunications industry, and Conroy labelled Abbott a “luddite” during the campaign.
Following the election loss, Smith himself — who had seldom publicly commented in the role — was quickly replaced as Shadow Communications Minister by high-profile former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, who has been extremely active in the portfolio over the past year.
Reith’s report stated that had the Coalition performed better on the broadband issue, it might have won the seat of Bass in Tasmania. “The post-election polling confirmed that the NBN was a major reinforcement for people to vote Labor in Bass. If we had negated NBN and offered, in a timely way, a decent Tasmanian package, Bass might have been a win instead of a loss,” the report states.
“Certainly, Bass and Braddon are seats we must target for the next election.”
Despite ongoing questions on the issue, the Coalition has not yet announced the formal broadband policy it will take to the next election, expected to be held in several years’ time. However, Turnbull has consistently stated a Coalition Government would immediately halt the NBN project while a cost-benefit analysis was conducted into its future by an organisation like the Productivity Commission. As with Labor’s policy, a Coalition broadband policy would include elements of fixed and wireless infrastructure to deliver services — but likely at a smaller overall cost than the NBN.
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