news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has accused his Opposition shadow Malcolm Turnbull of being “evasive” with respect to the Coalition’s telecommunications policy, stating the Liberal MP had “no excuses” for failing to come clean on the policy after five straight months of questions on it.
In a radio interview on 2UE last week, Turnbull made several controversial high-level statements about the Coalition’s telecommunications policy, stating that he would give the Australian people a “solemn undertaking” that a Coalition Government would “complete the job of NBN Co” and its “objective”, instead of ripping up the network or abandoning Labor’s NBN policy altogether.
Over the past year, Turnbull has outlined the Coalition’s alternative NBN policy in increasing detail, noting that it would focus on re-using existing infrastructure such as the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus, deploying satellite and wireless coverage to support rural areas, separating Telstra’s wholesale and retail operations, and using rival technology such as fibre to the node-style rollouts instead of the NBN’s fibre to the home style. However, Turnbull has been heavily criticised by a number of commentators over time for not providing further detail to flesh out these policy planks, and has not responded to repeated requests by Conroy to detail how the Coalition would actually go about implementing its policy.
“This is nothing from Turnbull except eloquent political spin again,” wrote Delimiter reader seven_tech following Turnbull’s comments. “He’s very good at it, but usually it contains some substance. In this case, it’s just the same story, in a pretty shell with flowers by saying “we will keep the mandate of the NBN”. The NBN is about almost total ubiquity of fast (both down and up), cheap broadband for Australians now and in the future. The Coalition FTTN rollout covers NONE of those. They plan on neutering the NBN as much as possible as a political policy in the hope it’ll go away, they’ll get into power and they can deal with it then.”
Another commentator, Martin Eddy, wrote: “Turnbull is doing what politicians do best. He’s saying the same thing a different way to change the message. I can’t see that their policy has changed.”
In a statement this week, Conroy said Turnbull had made 684 tweets, issued 23 press releases and delivered 7 public speeches in 2012. “He has still not, however, released a broadband policy,” the Labor senator said.
“In August 2010 Mr Turnbull said that he could do everything he needed to do with a 3.5 Mbps connection on a wireless card,” Conroy added. “In August 2011 Mr Turnbull planned to provide Australians with a 12 Mbps broadband service. In May, Mr Turnbull in a speech in Kuala Lumpur repeated his assertion that residential premises have no need for anything more than 25 Mbps.”
“This is a seven-fold increase over two years in download speeds that Mr Turnbull thinks is acceptable. He refuses to specify any upload capacity that customers should expect. He even acknowledges that Australia’s existing copper network will not fully support his proposed. Mr Turnbull has no excuses for being evasive about the Coalition’s broadband policy.”
Conroy has added to an extensive list of questions he has repeatedly posted Turnbull over the past five months, with issues ranging from what speeds the Coalition’s telecommunications policy would deliver to Australians, to technical network issues such as how many fibre to the node ‘nodes’ he plans to build, to issues such as whether Shadow Cabinet would support the structural separation of Telstra, and questions about what rate of return and costs the policy would deliver to the Government.
Conroy is, of course, completely right with his argument that Turnbull has not fleshed out the Coalition’s telecommunications policy to the necessary degree yet, and he is also right to question to what extent Turnbull’s off the cuff comments actually represent Coalition telecommunications policy and have been approved by Shadow Cabinet or even considered in brief by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott (I personally doubt most of them have been).
Turnbull understands the Communications portfolio very well, and I am sure that he is aware of the fact that the Coalition’s NBN policy is not in tip top shape yet.
However, as many people have previously written on Delimiter and other publications, on paper it doesn’t really make much sense for Turnbull to outline the Coalition’s telecommunications policy in detail just yet. Doing so would allow Conroy, who is already strongly delivering on his very popular and successful NBN policy, to tear the Coalition’s policy to shreds repeatedly over the year or so that remains before the next Federal election is called. Conroy is champing at the bit to do this right now; Turnbull isn’t giving him much ammunition. Plus, of course the Coalition wants to make a big policy splash during that next election; and telco policy will have to be a part of that.
Personally, I do think there is also a strong argument that the Coalition should release its telecommunications policy far in advance of the next election.
If the Coalition releases a half-baked policy as it did before the last election, then of course releasing it early would allow Labor to have a field day with it. However, if the Coalition releases a solid and well-researched policy, without much in the way of holes (and there is a great deal of evidence that the thoughtful and well-educated Turnbull would indeed release such a good policy, given his previous track record in policy development), this would have a very interesting effect on the debate.
Firstly, it would have the effect of leaving Conroy — a sitting Minister of two terms’ standing — in a difficult position of criticising a strong policy. This would come off as childish and deliver Malcolm Turnbull the high ground. It would also, as many commentators have suggested, neutralise the NBN as a political issue in the next election and switch the focus of the industry debate away from the NBN and towards engaging with the Coalition over its plans. This would be only natural, given that the Coalition is expected to strongly win the next Federal Election on current polling.
Of course, good policy isn’t easy to come by, and we’re sure it will take more effort from Team Turnbull to come up with one than simply pulling a ten point plan from the Earl of Wentworth’s well-heeled chest pocket. But from what we’re hearing, the Liberal MP has been consulting widely with industry recently and doing a great deal of deep thinking, and we wouldn’t be surprised to hear the Coalition’s NBN policy is very far advanced indeed. Turnbull has some smart cookies working for him, and it will be truly interesting to see what the Liberal brains trust can deliver. Underestimating Turnbull is never a good idea.