news Opposition Leader Tony Abbott confirmed over the weekend that he expected Malcolm Turnbull to become Communications Minister and have responsibility for the National Broadband Network project in a Coalition Government, following his time as Shadow Minister since September 2010.
In a doorstop interview in Western Sydney on Saturday, Abbott was asked whether Turnbull would be made the Treasurer in an Abbott Government. Joe Hockey currently holds the Shadow Treasurer role, but Turnbull’s name is often mentioned in the context of the treasury role due to his past history as an investment banker and lawyer.
Abbott responded: “Malcolm is the Shadow Minister for Communications. He’s doing a really good job of exposing the fact that the National Broadband Network is a complete white elephant. He’s doing a very good job of promoting our real solution, which is national broadband that doesn’t involve digging up every street to deliver fibre to the home whether you want it, need it or can afford to pay three times the current price for it. He’s doing a very good job and I expect that Malcolm will be the Communications Minister in an incoming government.”
Abbott was also asked to respond to comments by Turnbull that an Abbott Government would follow a more consultative, Westminster style approach to governing, compared with Labor’s model. “Is that what you plan to do?” a journalist asked the Opposition Leader.
“Absolutely,” replied Abbott, “and look, Malcolm is doing an excellent job and I’m a traditionalist as everyone knows and I think if the current government had had more due process and less panicked and arbitrary decision-making, our country would be in much better shape. So, of course there will be a proper cabinet process operating under the Coalition. I think people want strong and stable government and they understand that cabinet government is there for a reason.”
The comments reflect the second time Abbott has praised Turnbull’s performance in the portfolio this year and hinted that he would be Communications Minister in a Coalition Government. In late January, Abbott backed Turnbull’s rival NBN policy (based on fibre to the node and re-use of the existing HFC cable infrastructure) and praised Turnbull’s performance as Shadow Minister.
“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 news comes as Turnbull has this week given further details about what his first moves as Communications Minister would be.
In an interview with 2GB radio host Ray Hadley yesterday, the full transcript of which Turnbull has published on his website, the Liberal MP said the waste of money and delays in the NBN project as it currently stands were “shocking”. “The incompetence is startling,” Turnbull added “… That is just a recipe to get skinned … The NBN Co’s management have no discipline. No financial discipline at all.”
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” Turnbull added, in response to a question about how the Coalition would deal with the NBN if it won the election. “We are going to tell the Australian people the truth about the NBN. We will publish as soon as possible within literally within a few months if not sooner a full analysis of what it is going to cost in dollars and time to complete the network on Labor’s plan. And I think people will be shocked by that.”
“They will be absolutely rocked by it. And then we’ll publish how much time and money you can save by making certain variations and then what we’ll then do with that information we’ll then say right, these are the changes we can make and you can see why we’re doing it. And we’ll do the analysis, the cost-benefit analysis that these guys never did.”
Turnbull’s comments have been greeted by dozens of comments by members of Australia’s technology industry calling for the Shadow Minister to present evidence to back his claims that NBN Co’s management is incompetent and that the company is wasting money on its predominantly fibre rollout.
Currently the National Broadband Network Company plans to finish deploying its fibre network to most of the Australian population by 2021 (although its satellite and wireless components will be delivered much earlier, through 2015), at a total cost of $59.1 billion, including $35.9 billion of capital expenditure and some $23.2 billion of operating expenditure, although that operating expenditure will be offset by revenues in the same period. The company plans to use some government funding to complete the network and some private sector debt, with the eventual plan to pay back the Government’s investment with an additional return on top of seven percent.
Although the company has suffered some delays in its rollout, due primarily to the difficulty of finalising its agreement with Telstra and an expanded remit over greenfields estates, NBN Co currently appears broadly on track with its deployment plans. In addition, uptake of the NBN’s higher value plans has been stronger than projected, leading to suggestions that it may be able to repay the Government’s investment in NBN Co sooner or cut its wholesale costs.
“Malcolm’s ‘Shocking NBN truth’ is that he appears to have consistently and wilfully misrepresented the NBN while demonstrating that he hasn’t got a clue about the detail of his alleged alternative policy,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter in response to Turnbull’s comments.
“If Turnbull has evidence that NBN Co is wasting money hand over fist (and he is basically saying that he does), then lets see it. Now,” wrote another commenter. “NBN Co spending money to do the job they have been tasked with is NOT waste Malcolm. Furthermore, he’d best be careful with his words where no evidence exists.”
The news also comes as significant doubts have recently been raised as to whether the Coalition’s predominantly fibre to the node-based NBN policy (as opposed to Labor’s fibre to the premise-based rollout) is actually feasible and would deliver along the lines the Coalition has suggested. In an extensive article entitled The vast differences between the NBN and the Coalition’s alternative, ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross drew on a large number of sources to show that by almost any measure — technical, financial or on outcomes such as productivity increases — the Coalition’s broadband policy was inferior compared with Labor’s current NBN strategy.
In a number of high-profile interviews over the past six months, Turnbull has repeatedly refused to disclose key details of the Coalition’s NBN policy, saying only that it is expected to cost significantly less than Labor’s policy and be rolled out faster.
By Coalition standards, it is probably true to say that Turnbull’s doing an “excellent job”, in that he has been successful at generating a debate about the fundamental dynamics of the NBN. However, by the standards of good policy, rational political debate and responsibility to the electorate, I would argue that Turnbull has been doing a shocking job. Turnbull has consistently made grand accusations against NBN Co and the Government in this portfolio, especially over the past six months, but without presenting significant evidence to back up his assertions, and without presenting the Coalition’s rival policy. I don’t call that an “excellent job”. I call it misleading the electorate and playing politics with Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project.
If Turnbull does become Communications Minister — and based on current polling, it looks like he will do — I can promise the Member for Wentworth that I will personally ensure the same rigorous fact-checking and accountability standards are applied to his tenure as Stephen Conroy was treated to during the first few years of his period in the post, when Conroy was the Rudd Government’s public face to sell its Internet filter project. I suggest the honourable member consult with his Labor colleague for his thoughts on the experience.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull