news Opposition Leader Tony Abbott this afternoon confirmed the Coalition would take Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s fibre to the node-based broadband plan to the Federal Election as its broadband policy and appeared to hint that Turnbull would become Communications Minister in an Abbott administration.
Over the past several years, Abbott and other figures such as Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey have regularly taken a no holds barred approach when discussing the NBN, with Abbott in particular claiming that the NBN was not needed for Australia’s future and that a market-based approach to telecommunications would be a better policy for the Government to take. Hockey has regularly cited his belief that the future of Australian telecommunications would be better served by a focus on wireless and mobile broadband rather than on fixed-line communications.
The approach by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has differed radically from that of other senior Coalition figures, with the Member for Wentworth broadly believing that the NBN project as a whole should continue, but substantially modified, perhaps using fibre to the node technology to see the project “completed” sooner than Labor could with its current fibre to the home model. This has reportedly led to some within the Coalition to be concerned Turnbull’s approach was too similar to that of Labor.
However, in a major speech delivered this afternoon to the National Press Club, coming after the formal disclosure of the September 14 date for the upcoming Federal Election at the same venue yesterday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Abbott backed Turnbull’s fibre to the node model for the first time publicly. The full text of Abbott’s speech is available online.
“Between now and polling day, we will be constantly developing our policy commitments so that you know exactly what will happen should the government change,” said Abbott.
“On broadband, I’ve often said that the Coalition will deliver higher speeds sooner and more affordably than Labor’s nationalised monopoly NBN. We’re committed to super high speed broadband that’s affordable for everyone and built sooner rather than later. But with so many competing priorities, the last thing Australians need is another $50 billion plus in borrowed money to deliver higher speeds – but only in a decade’s time and at about triple the current monthly price.”
“We won’t throw good money after bad but we won’t dismantle what’s been built. Our fibre-to-the-node plan will deliver superfast broadband for a fraction of the price and in a fraction of the time required to deliver fibre to the front door. And Malcolm Turnbull is the right person to give Australians a 21st Century network because he is one of Australia’s internet pioneers.”
The comments reflect the first time Abbott has publicly committed to Turnbull’s FTTN strategy, which runs contrary to the fibre to the home model currently used by Labor’s NBN plan. Coming after a separate acknowledgement by Shadow Treasurer Hockey in a radio interview yesterday that the Coalition would find it hard to “shut down” the NBN and would need to “reformat it” instead, they would appear to indicate that Turnbull has achieved formal Shadow Cabinet approval for his FTTN proposal to become official Coalition policy ahead of the Federal Election.
Similarly, while Turnbull has been Shadow Communications Minister since September 2010, Abbott’s comments today reflect one of the first times the Opposition Leader has commented publicly on Turnbull’s future under a Coalition Government. Industry speculation in the past in some quarters has run along the line that Turnbull would be regarded as too senior to hold the traditionally junior portfolio, and might instead be given a more critical portfolio such as finance.
However, with the importance of the multi-billion NBN as a project within the communications portfolio, it is possible that the portfolio is now regarded by both sides of politics as being at a senior level. This is reflected in the current Federal Government by the promotion of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to the additional role to assist the Prime Minister in a whole of government technology role in the September 2010 reshuffle following that year’s Federal Election.
However, Abbott’s support for Turnbull’s FTTN model does not mean that the model has been fleshed out sufficiently to be compared with Labor’s current NBN plan. Speaking with ABC radio show AM this morning, Turnbull again refused to provide key details regarding to the precise cost of the Coalition’s plan, or address persistent complaints about the Coalition’s vision along the lines that the fibre to the node technology it uses is inherently inferior to the fibre to the home model used by the NBN currently.
Well! Now we know.
It’s clear what has happened here. Turnbull’s diligence and extensive research in the communications portfolio has paid off to a certain extent, and it appears the full Shadow Cabinet has now been briefed on and has approved his FTTN vision. In addition, it seems as though that policy has been costed to some extent, due to Hockey’s comments in the area, although Turnbull is of course right that it is difficult for the Coalition to completely cost the policy without full knowledge of the contracts NBN Co and the Government have entered into for the full rollout.
However, it’s also clear Abbott still doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about when it comes to broadband. I note from his speech that the Opposition Leader still believes NBN retail prices will be “three times” currently monthly prices. That claim has been thoroughly debunked; and I warn the Coalition that it can rely on fact-checking sites such as Delimiter to keep reminding them where they made factually inaccurate statements during this year’s campaign.
What should we expect from here? If you believe Hockey, we’ll get more concrete detail from the Coalition with regard to its rival NBN policy in the next few weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised; Turnbull has been quite quiet recently, but I know his office has been diving deep on the NBN. Hopefully at least, we will have enough time to have a very solid examination of the Coalition’s NBN policy before the election in September.
I would also like to say one thing in closing. Regular readers will know that I regard Labor’s NBN policy as the best communications policy Australia has ever had, even if it is being implemented rather slowly. I don’t expect any FTTN-based policy the Coalition comes up with this year to be better. I just don’t. Regardless of what Turnbull says, there are key technical differences between FTTN and FTTH, and we can’t escape this fact. The NBN has stood the test of time and debate, from its commercial model to the separation of Telstra and the rollout itself. You’ve all been there for that. Almost everyone is on the same page on that
However, consider how far we’ve come.
When Turnbull was appointed (coincidentally, on September 14, 2010), Abbott was raring to tear the NBN down, memorably issuing an order to Turnbull to “demolish” the whole thing.
Fast forward three years and it is Turnbull, the visionary, the technology early adopter, and I would argue, clearly the intellectual superior of the pair, who is more or less getting his way. The NBN will not be demolished off-hand or sold off, although it may morph into a radically different policy. Turnbull’s tenacity, intellectualism and continued engagement with the telecommunications industry over the NBN has generated a situation in which the Shadow Cabinet has had no real alternative but to accept his vision for a better broadband future for Australia.
Sure, it’s not as good a vision as Conroy’s, but it would have been suicide for Turnbull to merely accept Labor’s FTTH vision and not to put up some form of alternative. The genius of Turnbull’s approach has been that he has been able to formulate a Liberal-oriented credible alternative policy which will, in the short-term, achieve many of the same aims as Labor’s NBN policy, thus virtually neutralising it as an election issue and keeping Turnbull in the limelight along the way; with the eventual result that he may take a senior role in Abbott’s cabinet, and position himself well in the long run for another possible tilt at the leadership.
Politically, Turnbull’s FTTN policy and his stewardship of the communications portfolio for the Coalition has already been a victory for him.
The thorn in Turnbull’s side throughout this process, of course, has been the technology press and the industry. Turnbull and Abbott may be able to sell Turnbull’s FTTN policy to the public, but the fact remains that some of the claims Turnbull and others within the Coalition have used to criticise the NBN are just not true, or are misleading at best. In addition, there is the fact that Turnbull’s FTTN policy still remains dramatically inferior and untested compared to Labor’s NBN vision. Good policy is good policy; and the NBN is good policy. Many of us won’t like seeing good NBN policy morphed into mediocre NBN policy in an Abbott government.
From a policy and technology industry credibility viewpoint, Turnbull’s FTTN policy and his stewardship of the communications portfolio for the Coalition has not been a victory; in fact, if he does become Communications Minister, he will suffer a baptism of fire as he attempts to radically alter an NBN project which has become a technology industry favourite. “Why reform a project which is delivering and represents good policy?” will be the question which Turnbull will face constantly as he tried to morph the NBN into a FTTN project as Communications Minister. I’m sure Turnbull will be able to handle this kind of effort; he has more or less proven that he can handle anything at this point. But it does illustrate the dangers of trying to reform already good policy.
However you feel about the whole situation, it’s been a fascinating one. Indeed it may be said that we live in interesting times; and more will come in the years ahead. For now, I have confidence that Australia will get a half-decent broadband policy and an excellent Communications Minister, no matter what side of politics wins the upcoming election. And, in the context of the last Federal Election in 2010, when the Coalition’s policy and portfolio steward was a bad joke, that is a very good thing.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull