opinion Yesterday Malcolm Turnbull did exactly what a Liberal shadow minister should do: Present a credible, fiscally responsible and less disruptive alternative to a big-spending and over the top Labor project which since it was unveiled in 2009 has been the policy equivalent of using an elephant gun to kill a house fly.
The weakness of Stephen Conroy’s magnificent National Broadband Network vision has never been its primary technology choice of optical fibre to the home. Nor has it been its focus on using that technology to address the market power of Australia’s former monopolist telco Telstra. And none of the nitty gritty details of the NBN rollout itself have really called the policy into question.
What Turnbull has long felt in his gut — and was finally able to articulate into a solid policy response yesterday — is that the weakness of the NBN policy is also the weakness of the Labor movement itself: It’s a big government solution, with big government money, to a problem which probably requires a much more targeted, intelligent and minimalist approach.
As Australia’s chief cheerleader of the ‘small l liberal’ movement — as opposed to the more moderately right-wing Christian conservatism which Tony Abbott represents — the NBN has never sat well with Turnbull. And the truth is, it’s this philosophical issue which is why the NBN remains so contentious amongst much of the population today.
Fellow ‘small l liberals’ like myself have long found ourselves caught between the technological allure of universal fibre to the home and the hard economic reality of a $43 billion government intervention into and forced restructure of a telecommunications sector which had already been rapidly improving its offerings over the past decade of competition.
Australians, by and large, want fast broadband; that’s a truism. But in an age where society is speeding up and becoming more nimble, market-focused and flexible, to voters who have lived through decades of privatisation pain and deregulation under first Paul Keating and then John Howard, and with the economic disasters of failed European and American economies looming over the globe like a noxious shadow, the billion dollar contracts which NBN Co is currently lavishly throwing in glorious bunches to its contractor suitors have started to smell a lot like the mistakes of the past.
In this context, and as I have long argued, many of the elements of the Coalition’s new NBN policy unveiled yesterday make complete and obvious sense.
The destruction of value inherent in the shutdown of the HFC networks — a technology which is still being actively used and developed around the globe — has long stuck in the craw of many Australian technologists, and Turnbull would halt this anti-competitive madness and reverse it.
The Coalition has long been wary of the separation of Telstra, but half a decade of furious debate has generated a consensus around the issue: Telstra must not remain wedded to its copper network, and a Coalition NBN policy which did not include this as a key focus would be no policy at all. Turnbull has long been shifting the Coalition into accepting this fact and yesterday’s announcement formalises it and adds bite to its previous anaemic policy approach.
Supplying Australia’s regional and rural population with satellite and wireless has been a long-standing policy of both the Coalition and Labor, and Turnbull is right to keep it on the list. Just as long as he doesn’t mention the words “OPEL” again, rural Australia will doubtless be pretty happy with any investment in this area.
There are also other tasty morsels written between the lines of Turnbull’s speech. A focus on the successful Ultra-Fast Broadband policy which is unfurling in New Zealand also implies the potential to break Australia’s telco deadlock with other players; New Zealand’s wholesale market has been shaken up by the entrance of several electricity providers, with their long expertise in deploying and operating underlying infrastructure.
There is no reason to suggest that the same picture couldn’t emerge in Australia, with our much larger electricity providers — some of which are newly cashed up through privatisation and looking for new sources of growth. It’s an outcome which we suspect former AAPT chief executive Paul Broad — long a critic of the NBN policy — would look forward to with relish.
And the use of more targeted Government funds in areas where private sector investment has failed is more than just a solid alternative to the blast furnace approach of the NBN. It makes common sense. Government’s role should never be to use its legislative and budgetary powers to steamroll an entire sector. As Turnbull has always pointed out, Government should only step in where the market has failed. And with much of Australia currently enjoying decent broadband speeds from a range of providers; it’s hard to argue that the telecommunications market is the walking disaster which Labor often makes it out to be.
Now, of course, there are a number of obvious problems which Turnbull will face in implementing his fledgling NBN alternative.
Perhaps the largest one will be explaining to the electorate why — as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy pointed out this morning — the NBN project as a whole is being “cut up” in mid-flight, with more than a million Australians already enjoying fibre to their house and the rest clamoring for the same.
An obvious second will be bringing Telstra — which has already engaged in a gargantuan legal negotiation once with the Government over the past 18 months — to the table yet again for another complex restructuring exercise. And a third will be convincing the rest of the telecommunications sector that Australia’s political sphere has any legitimacy or consistency at all when it comes to an industry which has seen more changes in policy over the broadband issue over the past decade than a leopard has spots.
However, with his greater personal understanding of the sector (compared with Conroy’s gruelling and incomplete self-education process) and his ability to use his personal charisma to smooth over trouble spots, Turnbull is well-positioned for these battles. As he demonstrated yesterday, the Member for Wentworth has already anticipated many of the arguments his opponents will use against his fledgling new policy.
In addition, telco sector luminaries such as iiNet chief Michael Malone and his TPG colleague David Teoh have long been hedging their bets when it came to the NBN anyway; continuing ADSL DSLAM rollouts, making acquisitions and launching new services that will ensure their companies’ growth regardless of what happens in Canberra. We need no longer really consider Optus part of the major picture when it comes to the future of fixed broadband in Australia; the SingTel subsidiary has largely checked out of the fixed broadband market and is almost wholly focused on the mobile sector; an area where it can make better returns and not be hamstrung by government regulation.
In short, the sector will survive further change. It always does.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Turnbull’s vision is actually the former Opposition Leader’s own divided loyalties.
It’s hard to imagine the Coalition going to the next Federal Election being led once again by the ageing Tony Abbott. With his right-wing views, his unusual attitude towards women and his refusal to show compassion on soft issues such as the one surrounding refugees, Abbott has increasingly become an anachronism who does not fit well into modern Australian society.
Many Australians believed the 2010 election would have been better fought between Turnbull and Julia Gillard’s ousted predecessor Kevin Rudd; and it remains unclear who the next contest will be between. However, one thing is certain. Were Turnbull to sideline Joe Hockey somehow and re-take the leadership of the Liberal Party, he would doubtless triumph over Julia Gillard, who has lost the faith of much of the electorate and is now commonly labelled a liar.
Were this to happen, Turnbull would get the chance to put the Coalition’s shining new NBN policy into practice; but in an ironic twist, his ascension to the Prime Ministership would leave the actual implementation in the hands of someone else as Communications Minister — and perhaps someone with even less understanding of technology than Conroy himself.
Many will label former Optus executive and Member for Bradfield Paul Fletcher as a worthy candidate … but the fact remains that Fletcher does not yet have the party seniority for such a role. A junior ministership would be the natural first post for Fletcher in the near future, despite his telecommunications sector experience.
Whether such a change of leadership would leave the Coalition’s NBN policy without sufficient oomph to proceed on a rapid-enough basis to achieve decent outcomes during a Coalition Government’s first term remains to be seen. However, at least it has a decent chance of being successful. In the meantime, sure, for now, the NBN is going ahead. But for the first time since deregulation in 1997, the Coalition finally has a decent telecommunications policy to oppose it. It’s game on from now on in, and the entire future of Australia’s telecommunications sector is up for grabs.
Lastly, a reminder for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
Minister, this morning you laughed on national television that you spent all your life “on geek websites” these days, and apologised to journalists for using technical terms in a press conference. “Sorry if you’re not a tech-head or a geek,” you told them.
I feel it timely to remind you that these “geek websites”, as you call them, have shaped the entire future of Australia’s telecommunications industry. It is not an exaggeration to say that virtually the entire state of broadband competition in Australia over the past decade has been driven by broadband forum Whirlpool, which has painstakingly scrutinised the actions of all of the major players since it was established a decade ago.
These “geek websites” also played a pivotal role in reporting during the 2010 Federal Election, constantly debating issues which both sides of politics have acknowledged were crucial to Labor gaining the tiny margin of Government which it now holds.
Throughout your time in politics, Minister, you have demonstrated an enduring contempt for “geeks”; especially when it comes to contentious matters such as the NBN and the Internet filter project. And yet it is upon the shoulders of these “geeks” which the implementation of your NBN policy rests. I urge you not to take them lightly, and I would point out that one of the attractions of Malcolm Turnbull to this segment of the electorate is that he does not.
Governments, Communications Ministers and NBN policies will come and go, and yours may not survive past 2013. However, the geeks … the geeks will inherit the Earth.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull