opinion He might be charismatic, he might be popular, and pretty shortly he might be Prime Minister. But when it comes to technology policy, Malcolm Turnbull has been a disaster. The Member for Wentworth will be remembered as Australia’s worst ever Communications Minister — the man who singlehandedly demolished the NBN and put a polite face on draconian Data Retention and Internet piracy laws.
Right now, dozens upon dozens of political commentators are feverishly reflecting upon Malcolm Turnbull’s audacious bid to end Tony Abbott’s political career and seize the Prime Ministership which he has desperately coveted for many years.
Those commentators are reflecting upon the Member for Wentworth’s rationale for seeking to oust the existing Liberal leader. They are reflecting upon Turnbull’s chances for victory in the Liberal party room (right now, things are looking good). They are reflecting upon what a future Turnbull administration would look like. And they are even reflecting on the changed outlook for this week’s by-election in Canning.
But none of them are reflecting on Turnbull’s actual recent history as a Minister; his past two years leading the Communications portfolio in Cabinet.
So that’s what I will do in this article.
I am uniquely qualified to do so. I was present at Turnbull’s very first press conference after Abbott appointed him as the new Shadow Communications Minister five years ago in 2010. And today, I was in Parliament House in Canberra as Turnbull announced his challenge. I have borne witness to every step Turnbull has made along the way in the portfolio over the past five years.
So let me be the first to say it. And I will say it loud and very clear: Malcolm Turnbull has been an absolutely terrible Communications Minister.
The Communications portfolio is notorious in Australia’s technology sector for the Ministers who have held it over the years.
Howard-era Minister, Senator Richard Alston earned himself the dubious honour of being branded the world’s biggest Luddite for his lack of understanding of technology policy while steering national telecommunications policy. Alston famously described rolling out broadband across Australia as a “costly waste of time”.
Alston’s immediate successor Daryl Williams was barely in the role long enough to make an impact, while Senator Helen Coonan didn’t make many obvious gaffes but did appear to underestimate the demand of the electorate for high-speed broadband, leaving a gap which Labor ruthlessly exploited with its visionary National Broadband Network policy.
Labor’s longest-serving Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, earned his own notoriety for recklessly championing excessive Internet censorship, but ultimately redeemed himself through his relentless pursuit of national broadband nirvana, with some in Australia’s technology sector now viewing the bulldog Senator as Australia’s greatest ever Communications Minister.
Had Turnbull been a mild to moderate bungler like some of his Liberal predecessors, or a reformer such as Conroy, Australia’s technology sector would probably have retained a favourable impression of the man who is likely to be Australia’s next Prime Minister, due to his inherent charisma and progressive views on issues such as gay marriage and climate change.
However, the Member for Wentworth turned out to be that most dreaded of policy animals: A fervent pursuer of misguided ideas. As a Minister, Turnbull has consistently and energetically pursued appalling technology policy — the kind that will keep Australia in the digital dark ages for decades to come.
Foremost amongst Turnbull’s sins has been the shocking tragedy that has been his stewardship of the National Broadband Network project.
It’s true that Labor’s near-universal fibre vision for the NBN came with a fistfall of flaws. It tied Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project to a brand new, untested startup, it abandoned any pretence of bipartisan policy development on a long-term project that would span multiple Governments, and it chronically underestimated the complexity and effort required in actually rolling out optic fibre cables to almost every house and office in Australia.
However, the strength of the policy was always that it would have laid the foundation for the next century of world-class telecommunications infrastructure in this country, fuelling the development of a massive digital economy and better health, education, business and social outcomes. Along the way, it would also have completely broken Telstra’s stranglehold on market competition.
Turnbull’s appalling Multi-Technology Mix approach to the NBN will, in sharp contrast, set Australia significantly back.
The policy will result in massive cash windfalls to the likes of Telstra and Optus, allowing Australia’s two major telcos to offload their outdated copper and HFC cable infrastructure at a premium cost to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, that same taxpayer will face a legacy of decades of technical failures stemming from Turnbull’s insistence that copper cables and 25Mbps speeds are good enough for Australia’s broadband needs.
Right from the start — and I was there (in fact, he faced questions on this issue in his very first media event as Shadow Minister) — Turnbull has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the obvious strengths of fibre broadband infrastructure, insisting that the alternate copper and HFC cable platforms still have life in them.
The reality is that they do — but only for the next few years. By 2020, when Turnbull’s MTM vision is scheduled to be completed, Australians will already be clamouring to upgrade these platforms, and competing countries will be many years ahead of us.
Labor’s vision would have seen Australia’s telecommunications needs provided for for the next century. Turnbull’s version will barely last ten years until 2025. In point of fact, there are actually plenty of people openly stating it is not even sufficient for the needs of today.
Several of Turnbull’s other failures have seen the Communications Minister put a charismatic face on equally bad policy.
When George Brandis appeared to be terminally fumbling the catch in legislating the draconian Data Retention policy which the Attorney-General’s Department has long promoted to a revolving door of Labor and Liberal Attorneys-General, it was Turnbull that Prime Minister Abbott turned to as the new face of the policy.
Turnbull declared in Opposition that he had “grave misgivings” about Data Retention — stating baldly that he believed the policy “seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction”. This statement is consistently with Turnbull’s long-professed classical Liberal views that the Government should largely avoid interfering in the lives of ordinary Australians.
However, in Government the Member for Wentworth became a vocal supporter of Data Retention.
The Coalition — and Labor — faced a protracted campaign to defeat the legislation, with the left-wing Greens teaming up with ideological opposites from the Liberal Democrats and even the Institute of Public Affairs to oppose it. Virtually every major telco in Australia; scores of civil society organisations; even former law enforcement officials — criticism of the policy came from every possible side. There is absolutely no doubt that the Data Retention legislation is terrible policy which will result in huge invasions of all Australians’ privacy. As a country, we are largely against it.
And yet Turnbull directly supported the legislation’s passage through Parliament.
The same can be said for Turnbull’s support of the controversial Internet piracy legislation which passed just several months ago. In Opposition, the Member for Wentworth plainly stated his view that the Internet piracy issue could best be resolved by the private sector making all of its content available globally through convenient platforms at the same time.
At the time, Turnbull stated that the Internet had basically made territorial limitations on copyright “unworkable”.
Fast forward three years and the Liberal MP had reinvented himself as a champion for the content industry, once again teaming up with Attorney-General George Brandis to shepherd draconian laws through the Parliament. This time the legislation would see content owners able to use the courts to block websites containing pirated content. Yet again, to no avail, a broad coalition of concerned groups arose to oppose the legislation, pointing out that it would give content owners too broad powers and would ultimately be ineffective.
This new censorship power, by the way, dovetails nicely with the Section 313 power which Federal Government agencies started using under Labor’s watch to unilaterally block websites. You may recall the infamous occasion when the Australian Securities and Investments Commission used the power to accidentally take scores of innocent websites offline.
As Minister, Turnbull announced a short-lived Parliamentary inquiry into the use of the censorship power and then quietly shelved the issue when the relevant Liberal-dominated House of Representatives committee came back with a series of limp recommendations for overseeing it. The net result is that Australian Government departments and agencies are currently able to censor whatever website they like … but nobody knows which websites or how many. That’s all kept under wraps on Turnbull’s watch.
Yeap, that’s right — in Opposition, Turnbull was starkly against Internet filtering and for freedom of speech. Not so much, any more — apparently.
Are you detecting a trend?
There are other problems with Turnbull’s tenure as Communications Minister. The substantial cuts the Government has made to the ABC and SBS, directly against its promises before the 2013 Election. Turnbull’s attempt to increase the amount of advertising on SBS. The relatively innocuous but largely ineffective legislation to deliver cyber-safety online.
The least you could say about many of these policies is that they will be ineffective. The worst you could say is that they will severely retard the development of Australia’s telecommunications sector and the nation’s digital economy.
There is a great deal of uncertainty out there in Australia’s technology sector about Turnbull.
Some believe the Duke of Double Bay is actually a smart and tech-savvy leader who has had his policy agenda nobbled by Abbott’s conservative Government. Others believe he has been pushed around by vested interests such as Telstra and film and TV studios. There is also a vocal contingent that believes he is misguided or merely unintelligent — that he does not understand the problems with the policies he has promoted.
But my personal view — after being closely exposed to Turnbull’s daily moves for a period of five years — is very close to that of former Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Keating told Kevin Rudd when Turnbull first took leadership of the Liberal Party that Turnbull was brilliant and utterly fearless. And of course, as should be obvious at this point, it is common knowledge that Turnbull is charismatic and extremely ambitious.
But Keating’s ultimate view on Turnbull is that he has poor judgement — in short, that he is not wise.
Looking back over Turnbull’s two years as Communications Minister, it’s easy to confirm this statement as accurate.
The Member for Wentworth has had his good moments. The TV legislation which passed the Parliament last week was a solid piece of policy which will finally allow Australians to view free to air broadcast in high definition. It may have come years later than it should have, but Turnbull can take credit for it. And the Digital Transformation Office which Turnbull has set up over the past year is already looking like it will be a lasting and extremely positive institution.
But in general, across so many areas, as Communications Minister Turnbull has demonstrated poor judgement.
In its worst forms, this judgement has been catastrophic for Australia. Turnbull’s extreme politicisation of the NBN project, leading to the absurd Multi-Technology Mix, will leave Australia in a terrible situation with respect to our future broadband needs, and entrenches the major telcos in unassailable positions in the market. Data Retention has destroyed our privacy and several forms of Internet censorship are now a reality. All on Turnbull’s watch.
But even in the Member for Wentworth’s more moderate policy moments, his initiatives have hardly been striking successes — and they have certainly not demonstrated wisdom.
Little of these issues will be considered by Australia’s political commentariat when it comes to weighing Turnbull’s value as a Prime Minister. It’s all too geeky, too niche, and too esoteric for many to consider. Turnbull as Communications Minister will be all too rapidly forgotten as Turnbull as Prime Minister — or, unlikely as it appears right now — political retiree — takes its place.
But Australia’s technology sector has lived through five years of Malcolm Turnbull. And those years will never be forgotten.
Five years of Turnbull attacking respected figures such as founding NBN chief executive Mike Quigley. Five years of Turnbull backflipping on his principles to implement draconian policies. And five years of what may be politely termed poor judgement.
Two years ago, I wrote that despite his flaws, Stephen Conroy had left a big enough legacy with the National Broadband Network project that he necessarily had to be judged Australia’s greatest ever Communications Minister — an extremely ambitious reformer and a force for overwhelmingly positive change.
Thus it is today that we must recognise Turnbull as the Yin to Conroy’s Yang. If Conroy was our greatest ever Communications Minister for his NBN vision, then Turnbull was Australia’s worst — not only for tragically tearing down that vision, step by bitter step, but for the series of additional policy debacles which has left a necklace of odious millstones around digital Australia’s neck.
Turnbull will be remembered as the Communications Minister who destroyed Australia’s privacy, censored our Internet, cut the ABC and SBS and demolished the visionary broadband infrastructure project which could have vaulted us into the next century.
It won’t be hard for the next Minister to do a better job. All they will have to do is halt the trail of destructively bad policy which Malcolm Turnbull has left in his wake. Let’s hope he takes the chance to rectify these issues if he gets the chance to serve as Prime Minister. Let us pray.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull