news Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has stared down harsh criticism of the Coalition’s rival broadband policy in a tense community meeting in Launceston, where the Labor Federal Government’s popular National Broadband Network was one of the topics being discussed by Tasmanian residents.
Tasmania has for some years been a key battleground state in terms of NBN politics, with the state being chosen as one of the key early stage rollout zones for the NBN due to its current poor levels of telecommunications infrastructure and competition in the telco sector, which remains dominated by former monopolist Telstra.
A landmark report handed down in July 2011 into the Coalition’s loss in the 2010 Federal Election highlighted a failure to adequately respond to Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network plan as a key reason for losing valuable votes, specifically naming the Tasmanian electorate as a highly sensitive area on the issue.
“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 produced by Sydney academic Julian Leeser stated. “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.”
Last week, Abbott attended a community forum in Launceston, where he fielded a detailed question featuring extensive criticism of the Coalition’s rival broadband policy from Andrew Connor, a spokesperson for Digital Tasmania, which has been one of the key lobby groups in helping to push for better broadband infrastructure in the state. Connor is also a councillor at Meander Valley Council and an IT consultant.
Connor told Abbott (full audio available here) he and his ministers had “set out to destroy the NBN”, despite the fact that the project was supported by much of the community, had been “a deciding factor in the last election”, and despite the fact that the technology industry broadly agreed that fibre-optic cable would be the key technology to meet global telecommunications needs.
“The question for you is what are you going to do if you’re elected — what are you going to do with the NBN?” Connor told Abbott. “Are you going to rip it up? Are you going to shut it down? Tasmania needs this technology, and the rest of the country needs it too. We also need another link to Tasmania, and that’s being left off the map.”
“The NBN really is a massive project for the country, creating employment, and also opportunity for education and healthcare everywhere. That value-adds onto the $50 billion that’s being spent on it. We need to know what you’re going to do with the NBN, and we need to know the policy more than 10 days out from the election, like last time. But we also need to know how your policy meshes with the state-level policy of supporting the NBN.”
Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has informally outlined a number of details regarding the Coalition’s rival broadband policy, such as its focus on splitting Telstra, re-using the existing HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus, deploying fibre to the node technology and so on. However, the Coalition has not substantially fleshed out its policy in a formal policy document, and many details of the policy remain unclear, compared with Labor’s very detailed NBN plan, which will have advanced substantially in implementation by the next Federal Election.
In addition, the NBN continues to enjoy strong levels of popular support, even amongst Coalition voters. More Coalition voters support the project than are against it, according to new research released yesterday, as support for the initiative continues to grow to record levels. According to the polling data, in total 42 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Liberal or National voters stated that they were in favour of the NBN, while 40 percent in total opposed the project and the remaining 18 percent didn’t know. Amongst Labor and Greens voters, the numbers are much more strongly in favour of the NBN, with 80 percent of Labor voters and 68 percent of Greens voters for the plan, and with a much higher proportion of those polled being strongly in favour. In total, according to Essential Media, 57 percent of Australians currently support the NBN.
At the Launceston meeting, Abbott responded by stating that he “profoundly” disagreed with many of Connor’s inferences. “But that’s the beauty of democracy; we are open to being challenged,” he said. Abbott said the problem with the NBN wasn’t its objectives, “which are laudable enough”, but that it created a new government monopoly, “which we don’t need; it’s too expensive”. “None of us want to pay more than we have to for anything, and it is doing more than is necessary with fibre,” he said.”
“Fibre is very important, of course fibre is very important,” he added. “But you do not need fibre to every home to have a decent broadband system. In fact, most of the cost of the NBN is the delivery of fibre in that last few hundred metres to ensure that it goes to 93 percent of the homes in our country. That is the problem. Govt monopoly, unnecessary expense, and insistence on fibre to every home.”
The Coalition, Abbott said, wouldn’t “throw good money after bad” if it won government, and would accept what it found when it took power. “We’re not going to rip up contracts, we’re certainly not going to tear down infrastructure,” he said. “But we do not, certainly, intend to continue, what we think is unnecessary and too expensive, and we certainly don’t guarantee to keep in public ownership something where competition, I think, is generally better at delivering an affordable service.”
Abbott also stated that in Tasmania, the NBN had so far passed only 4,000 houses, with less than a thousand premises having taken up the service, “even at subsidised prices”.
Connor said there were “well-documented reasons” for the take-up rates. However, Abbott said the fact was that at the moment, the NBN was passing five houses a day in Tasmania. ” If the schedule is to be met, it has to pass 170 houses a day. Nationally, the NBN has so far gone past about 18,000 houses. They are telling us that it’s going to go past almost a million by the end of the year. Now does anyone really believe that this government is capable of doing that?” he said.
“So I am all in favour of faster broadband. I am all in favour of better broadband services. But I think we can do it much better than is currently happening.”
Who’s right here? Well, both sides. Connor is right — Tasmania and the rest of Australia stand to benefit greatly from the NBN. It’s a worthwhile project which is slated to make a return on government investment (that is, it will actively make money for the government), as well as achieving important industry and public policy outcomes such as restructuring the telecommunications sector and providing better services to consumers. In addition, Connor’s statement that the Coalition needs to provide more detail with respect to its alternative policy was also accurate.
However, in his speech, Abbott was convincing — as he so often is in person — and won a round of applause from the Launceston audience. Plainly, there are people in Tasmania who think the fibre rollout in the state is proceeding too slowly, and they’re right. The NBN has been quite delayed over the past several years, primarily due to the need to finalise NBN Co’s agreement with Telstra, and things are proceeding more slowly than many people would like. Labor first won government this decade in November 2007. 4,000 premises in Tasmania is a pretty slow rate for that four year period.
The caveat, of course, is that the NBN is now in full ramp-up stage and will, from now, be rolled out in an accelerated manner. All of the planning has been done, all of the I’s have been dotted and the T’s crossed. Every state in Australia will receive a vast swathe of NBN infrastructure over the next three years, and the Coalition has not yet done enough to illustrate the details of its own plan, and how it would transition the NBN to that plan.
The principles espoused by Abbott last week are good principles — but principles do not a plan make, and Labor has a very detailed plan which is being implemented rapidly as I write this. The Coalition needs to actually show the nation its broadband plan — if in fact it has one at all.