Quoting the Economist belies Turnbull’s intelligence


On last night’s Q&A program on the ABC, an audience member asked a somewhat controversial question of the panel, which included writers, a lawyer and representatives from both sides of politics. “Steve Jobs was an innovator, above all a visionary. President Obama said in a tribute: He was brave enough to think differently. Who in the Australian political scene today, do you think is or could be the innovator, the visionary, who is brave enough to be different?” asked questioner Peter Edwick.

From memory, the initial answer was “nobody”, but of course Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten loyally raised Julia Gillard as the nation’s biggest political visionary. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop, in turn, raised Tony Abbott, comparing the Liberal leader’s tenacity to that of Jobs. At the time I almost choked on my Heineken. Abbott — it must be said — is no Steve Jobs.

And at one point the name “Malcolm Turnbull” was briefly mentioned, to general interest and some laughter from the room.

It had been something I was expecting to happen. If you ask the man on the street in Sydney which politician they most respect — an experiment I often perform in taxis — the name of the current Shadow Communications Minister and former Liberal leader often comes up. Like Jobs, Turnbull has been an entrepreneur (think OzEmail), but he also has a wider vision; encompassing climate change, Australia’s situation in Asia, the economy and more.

In these days where our political leaders seem locked into a cycle of pointless debate on issues few people care about, Turnbull’s approach often feels like a breath of fresh air. That’s why I was so disappointed to see the Member for Wentworth yesterday drawing from yet another spurious grab-bag of flawed statistics from an already discredited source — the Economist Intelligence Unit — to criticise the government on broadband.

Many among you will remember the ease with which Communications Minister Stephen Conroy demolished the last piece of NBN research produced by the Economist. In February this year, Conroy highlighted the glaring factual inaccuracies in a report by the magazine on the NBN, labelling the document as “right-wing dogma”.

At the time, I found it hard to disagree with him.

Yesterday, Turnbull made his first public appearance in Australia after spending time in Europe, where he met with telcos and their regulators in countries like the UK. He used the occasion to highlight a new report by the Economist, which claims the Federal Government is “extravagant” in its spending on the NBN — even more so than the “next most lavish spender”, Greece — a nation on the edge of financial disaster.

“The reaction around the world to the NBN is as was very elegantly, if not diplomatically, summed up to me by one very senior official in Europe last week: ‘From our point of view, your policy seems completely crazy, Mr Turnbull’,” said Turnbull yesterday. “Well of course, it’s not my policy, it’s Mr Conroy’s policy and it is a disgrace to Australia.”

Now, there is no doubt that Turnbull has achieved his aim in commenting on the Economist’s report. An AAP article on the subject has already been published around Australia by dozens of media outlets. The MP has made his point: The Federal Government is spending more money on telecommunications than other governments are.

And yet we can’t help but be fascinated by little-reported comments by NBN Co this week that point out — yet again — that the Economist’s research is seriously flawed in its analysis of the NBN. The Age reports:

“A spokeswoman for NBN Co said the report underestimated the number of households that would be connected by 6 million, and did not recognise the company would make a commercial return.”

And on Twitter, NBN Co spokesperson Andrew Sholl reiterated the point: The Economist report underestimated by 50 percent the number of premises that would be connected. Sholl appends the hashtag #dodgymethodology — and we find it hard to disagree that that appendage is appropriate. And then on Twitter again this morning, NBN Co struck back stronger against the Economist:

“The Economist survey claimed the #NBN will cover 7.45m Australian premises in fact it will cover 13m+ premises by the time it is complete. You have to question a report that seems to have mislaid millions of homes and businesses. It overlooked that Australia is more than 3x the size of all the other top-ranked countries combined and that the #NBN will pay itself back.”

Now, I have no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull is well-read. I have no doubt that he is highly educated, and that he has a way with words which leads to catchy soundbites such as comparing Stephen Conroy and his NBN project to Communist Cuba. This sort of thing makes for great article headlines.

But Steve Jobs, as we have heard repetitively over the past few weeks, didn’t believe in doing market research before developing Apple products. He anticipated and created consumer demand — he didn’t discover it. If Turnbull truly wants to be known as an innovator and a visionary in Australian politics, he must stop clutching at every half-baked twig that passes his way as evidence that the NBN is flawed policy, and start swimming for himself.

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. Australia is extravagant in its health spending; why, just look at the USA and how badly they are doing by spending less than us!

  2. this is another one of the areas where I am glad we are not like Europe or the US given the state of our telecommunications we need to spend this money. Also on the health subject… so glad we are not like America there either.

  3. Comparing major infrastructure to commodity goods? Drawing an extremely long bow there Renai. Rest assured if Job’s was in the business of building government mandated infrastructure it would look nothing like the current NBN.

  4. So few comparisons for the NBN factor in the incredible cost of such a low density population. Change the numbers to factor in the density differences and suddenly the NBN numbers / seat don’t look anywhere near as awful as people state. That being said, I’m terrified it’s still going to be a white elephant due to mismanagement. End of the day, only the NBN type solution will solve the problems Telstra have deliberately engineered to ensure lock in (eg. estates with FTTN unable to access anything but Telstra ADSL, pair gain limitations and port availability – wireless won’t solve this. Telstra did this to us in their death throes as a pure malevolent disingenuous anti-competitive deliberate tactic)

    • But that’s the thing. Even if there was a cost blowout of 100%, that would mean it would just take twice as long to pay off. From 17 to 34 years. But the network will last 50 years. So where’s the problem? No one’s suffering a tax increase. There’s no business investment being lost (no one was building a new network before the NBN). So why are you so worried?

      This is the most fiscally sound project in the history of infrastructure projects.

      And perhaps most importantly, it’s the *only* infrastructure project in Australia’s history that expects to pay itself off and earn an actual *return* on the investment!

  5. “The MP has made his point: The Federal Government is spending more money on telecommunications than other governments are.”

    This is totally wrong, people need to stop quoting the dribble that comes out of Malcolm’s mouth as gospel, sorry but it has to be said…

    State owned China Telecom are rolling out FTTH as we speak, they aim to cover a massive 910 million premises with 12Mbps entry level speeds (sound familiar?) with 100Mbps available at a premium (again, familiar?) – so far they have covered 10 million homes and it has cost them $23.6bn granted this is also laying alot of new interstate Fiber also.

    They have no idea how much it will cost them, they simply refuse to even estimate it – but it won’t surprise me if we are looking at half a trillion by the time it’s finished – 910 million homes is no small amount, especially in a country that is as large as China (larger than Australia) with decentralization galore (55% of Chinese still live in rural areas)

    That aside I also scoffed at the thought of Abbot or Turnbull being a visionary.

    • but its not illegal to compete with china telecom, unlike a certain NBN. that is the entire point of the comparison to china. if a private company in china will cover an area with FTTH for less, the local government (or state, or whatever their equivalent) will allow them to. the NBN on the other hand

      • It is not illegal to compete with NBNco either – people have misunderstood this.

        NBNco and Telstra have a deal, initially it started out as aquisition of Telstra’s ducts but Telstra wanted to throw the whole kit and kaboodle in, it’s unfortunate, but Telstra have the bargaining chips here – NBNco would like to avoid digging up every street in Australia to lay new pits.

        Telstra wanted their HFC network thrown in, and also wanted to be paid per subscriber that is moved across – NBNco however saw a potential loophole – that Telstra would push NextG wireless onto those customers to maximize profit.

        This would be a total dick move given Telstra are being paid to transfer these customers.

        The legislation that prevents wireless being marketed as a ‘alternative’ to Fiber only applies to Optus and Telstra – as both have various infrastructure deals with NBNco.

        It also has nothing to do with competing – just dubious advertising.

        • No it actually would be either illegal or financially unviable, even Conroy has said that the purpouse of the legislation he passed was to protect the NBN monopoly, I have no idea why the NBN proponents are trying so hard to deny this, its the point of the NBN

          In the same way that no private company can compete against Australian post for standard letter sized post (because there is legislation that forces every private company has to sell their letters at multitudes higher then AusPOST does), the exact same type of legislation is being passed in regards to fixed line infrustructure, which forces any private company to charge more then NBNCo (also referred to the anti-cherry picking laws)

    • You got a source for that info on china? Be very interesting reading for any links with actual detail on what China is doing.

  6. One would hope that the economist was appalled at the governments in the west that propped up the financial institutions to the tune of Trillions of dollars, I mean shouldn’t they have championed the idealism of capitalism then and still be raving about it. But of cause no they aren’t instead they simply try to degrade something that will be of benefit to all citizens and businesses of this great brown land.

    Poor old MT is having to tow a line he knows to be utterly contemptible, we know it and he knows it. Something like a unknown known.

    No doubt Tony the Wabbit will be jumping up and down in his warren with Barny and the other crazy’s in the Lib/Nats

  7. “A spokeswoman for NBN Co said the report underestimated the number of households that would be connected by 6 million, and did not recognise the company would make a commercial return.”

    … right, based on what? a business case study comissioned by NBNCo?

    How about we do an indepedent report by the productivity commission conroy?

    • You reckon the Productivity Commission would come to different conclusions? I don’t. Most of the different reports into NBN Co so far have come to similar conclusions. Sure, there are a few outliers, but they’ve been largely discredited.

      • sure they will come to a different conclusion…

        could the kpmg ‘independent’ report bring any surprises considering the client is paying them big bucks? … they will write what nbnco tells them to.

        could the contractors give a realistic pricing on the cost to build? of course not, nbnco just rejects all bids… and goes back to pick the one who will give the cheapest ‘unrealistic’ pricing…and accuse everyone else of ‘talking advantage’ by upping the cost estimate…

        seems to me, nbnco is just one big govt bureaucracy disguised as a private entity…no surprise.

        of course, its already looking like a ”keep kicking the can further’ operation…we’ll get to the reality, when, we get to it.

        the problem is that as long as nbn has political value, the truth will not come out, so yeah, does sound a lot like socialism

        • So big government, conspiracy, bureaucracy, and socialism. Any more talking points you’d like to regurgitate before we put you out to pasture?

  8. The understimation of households may have been an error, but whether or not the NBN would make a return is completely irrelevant.

    The whole point of the EIU analysis showed that our Telecommunications sector is being traversed backwards

  9. Don’t forget the obvious: Winning office comes first. All other policy consideration are secondary to this. If a poor policy suits the rhetoric of your electoral strategy then interests of the nation be buggered. Turnbull has knowingly and willingly signed up to this strategy.

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