Election rant 7: Labor’s arrogance hamstrung NBN policy


ZDNet.com.au columnist David Braue has committed to write one technology-related election rant for each business day until the Federal Election on August 21. But elections are above all, a debate between two sides. So Delimiter is going to match his seven rants — day by day – providing an alternative devil’s advocate point of view.

opinion I feel I have rather an edge over David Braue in this last reply to his last election rant on technology policy in the 2010 Federal Election. That’s because David’s last rant — in which he argues that Tony Abbott’s naked lust for the power and prestige of the Prime Ministership is a major factor in leading the Coalition’s broadband policy astray — was posted yesterday.

This morning I have had the benefit of walking out amongst the people of Australia and taking the temperature of my fellow residents on the morning before what will be a grand night in Australian political history — no matter what the outcome is.

What I found surprised me.

During the election, commentators have complained again and again that the campaign was essentially about nothing, an election between two potential governments who had few defining policy differences, in which both sides ran a series of negative attack arguments both in their advertising and in their personal statements.

“Cynicism is the cancer gnawing away at this campaign,” wrote ABC political commentator Annabel Crabb yesterday. “Campaigns reflect their predecessors to some extent, and this one suffers silently from the legacy of 2007: The triumph of passionate belief, followed by its swift abandonment.”

And yet, as I walked the streets of Kingsford Smith this morning (where voters are currently wondering just what they are to do with their quixotic local member, Peter Garrett), there was a giant sense of anticipation in the air.

“Don’t forget to vote!”, my local baker was reminding his customers as they picked up their weekend bread – and perhaps a little something extra to enjoy with coffee and tea while the election coverage rolls on tonight.

I couldn’t resist myself and snuck back in later on to give him some of his own. “Have you voted yet?” I asked him. He laughed and said he was excited would surely get over to the voting booth later on in the day. Elsewhere the streets were buzzing with people smiling, laughing — excited. And much more so than on a normal Saturday morning in the sleepy electorate by the beaches of Sydney’s East.

Now, after getting this far in this article, at this point, you must be thinking something like: “What does this commentary have to do with broadband policy?”

The answer is a lot.

The truth is, that despite the apparent boredom of the political media about the 2010 election campaign, the Australian public is tremendously excited about it. There is still a vibrant and strong debate going on online and offline about virtually every aspect of the major and minor parties’ policies — including, and especially, with regards to the NBN — and many Australians have even now not yet made up their mind who they will vote for.

And perhaps the defining difference between the way the parties have performed during the election is that Tony Abbott knows this.

Labor took what was by far the better broadband policy to the electorate when the election campaign started. Fibre to almost every Australian’s home and workplace, mandated and paid for by the Government, simply trumps the Coalition’s vague investments aimed at letting the telecommunications market work out its own problems.

But Labor has not sold its policy well.

As the campaign rolled on, a note of entitlement increasingly crept into the voices of all of Labor’s senior leaders with regards to the National Broadband Network. After watching a dozen or more press conferences with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy over the past year over the matter, it has become increasingly apparent that the Minister does not understand why anyone would not want the NBN — or at least not want to pay for it out of the public purse.

This was starkly demonstrated during Conroy’s press conference immediately after the Coalition unveiled its broadband policy. Conroy’s approach should have been to remain silent and let every other commentator under the sun proceed to demolish the Coalition’s ephemeral ideas — as they promptly did.

Instead, he went on a heavy-handed attack which led him into the unsavoury territory of accusing Tony Abbott of knowing nothing about technology. Gillard, too, has been at pains to explain repeatedly in a schoolmarm’s tone that Australia simply must have a NBN — discussing the network as if it was a product to be picked from a shelf in IKEA and self-installed.

In contrast, Abbott has taken a much more light-handed approach that has been more respectful of the extremely diverse views on the matter held by the wider Australian community, which differ from the technology sector’s one-sided view in favour of the NBN.

Every voter’s view is valid, Abbott’s campaign has respectfully appeared to suggest, but the Coalition has one view, and that’s the view it will implement if it wins Government.

The defining point of the campaign for me — and the point at which I became convinced that Abbott will take Government tonight — was the moment at which he walked down into the crowd at the Rooty Hill RSL, starkly differentiating himself from Gillard’s remote pose perched on a chair on stage.

Abbott’s approach suggested leadership. He listened to each audience member’s views and then calmly outlined why they were right or wrong, according to the Coalition — but in a way that had even those who strongly disagreed with him eating out of his hand. Jokes to take the sting out of arguments, laughter with the crowd. “People Skills”, indeed.

Often it doesn’t matter what a leader’s policies actually are. Sometimes you will trust and follow them — and vote for them — if they take the right approach in talking to you. And that’s what we have seen during this election. While Labor has been preaching from the pulpit about things on which it has usually been right, the Coalition has been at the pub talking shit with the people — about things it may not understand, but on which voters have been listening to it nonetheless.

The event which perfectly highlighted the sense of entitlement which the Labor camp feels about broadband was NBN Co chief Mike Quigley’s startling last-ditch attack on the Coalition’s broadband policy this week, which spurred an intense debate about whether the executive had breached the public sector Caretaker Conventions around elections.

Quigley’s extraordinary intervention can have been caused by only one thing: A growing sense in the executive’s stomach that the Australian electorate was increasingly turning on Labor – an event that would have catastrophic consequences for the fledgling broadband company he had spent so much time building over the past year.

And yet, when faced with such a problem, Quigley took the same approach that has been failing Labor throughout the campaign: He appealed to people’s common sense.

Yes, Quigley is right on most counts. Australia will eventually need fibre, and fibre does trump ADSL, wireless and HFC cable broadband. Yes, fibre is necessary infrastructure which will serve Australia for the next 50 years, and it is likely that it will not easily be rolled out without Government investment.

But these are technical and economic arguments being introduced into an election which is primarily about trust. An election, which – still – is primarily about whether Australians can feel comfortable about the way in which Julia Gillard backstabbed Australia’s favourite son, Kevin Rudd.

Quigley has his own form of leadership. But it is a technical leadership based on rationality. And Labor – and Quigley himself — has attempted to sell the NBN on technical grounds.

In contrast, Abbott’s leadership is the emotional leadership, the human leadership, of the salesperson. And that is what has allowed him to sell the Coalition’s broadband policy to the electorate against all odds.

My suspicion is that tonight the Coalition will do enough to win back government. There is an energy out there in the community that does not seem to sit well with Gillard’s cold approach – but that does seem to match Abbott’s tireless, dogged pursuit of votes, even to the extent of campaigning 36 hours straight without sleep.

Labor’s broadband policy is better than the Coalition’s. But Australia may not choose what is best for it tonight. Australia may choose the leaders it feels more comfortable with instead.

Image credit: Timo Balk, royalty free