After just six weeks, Turnbull has Conroy on the run


opinion Normally I agree with telco columnist David Braue’s hard-hitting views on Australia’s telecommunications industry one hundred percent — after all, I created the Full Duplex blog which he has the honour of running.

I guess that makes David kind of like my Sith apprentice. After I created the Death Star of telco blogs and populated it with hundreds of reader comments, David’s now turning it towards his own nefarious ends. However, leaving my bile-filled rants behind, he’s now turned towards reasoned commentary and in-depth analysis. Which, as Whirlpool creator Simon Wright knows only too well, clearly has no place in Australia’s telecommunications sector.

But I digress. My real point here is that David has gotten it wrong with his contention this week that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his happy NBN wrecking crew has some form of “personal grudge” against the NBN and its chief proponent Stephen Conroy.

David paints Turnbull as “blind opposition”, “an albatross around Stephen Conroy’s neck” and the Coalition in general as a bunch of “laboriously lamenting Luddite Liberals” which is coming across as ridiculous roadblocks in the way to implementing a common sense fibre nirvana. However, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Turnbull is the thinking man’s alternate Communications Minister — and one who already has his own telco legislation being considered in parliament, despite being in Opposition.

The fact is that Turnbull — despite my advice to him that NBN opposition wouldn’t get him anywhere (shows you what journalists know!) — has already achieved a remarkable amount of progress in his Shadow Ministry. He’s got most of Australia’s business leaders backing his call for an NBN cost/benefit analysis, he’s mobilised the Coalition to reform its stodgy telco policy and dump its opposition to the long-awaited separation of Telstra, and he’s got the Greens and Independents seriously considering whether they will support his personal legislation to make the NBN more transparent.

You could hardly have expected Turnbull to do more in the scant month and half he’s had the portfolio. I call what he’s achieved so far nothing short of stunning.

The really amazing thing about the last six weeks of telco debate is how Conroy keeps on giving Turnbull free kicks. In his second term as Communications Minister, with a Government and population broadly behind the NBN, Conroy simply doesn’t have to engage with Turnbull to drive the policy forward.

And yet, at every opportunity to debate Turnbull (such as last night’s Insight program), Conroy turns up at the drop of a hat and trots out the same tired old arguments, while Turnbull sits at the other end of the table with his charming aristocratic smile, proffering Conroy back his own evidence and looking like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Turnbull has a flexible mind. At every step of the way over the past six weeks he has taken every opportunity that has passed his way to learn more about his portfolio and to advance the debate forward as fast as he can — in the direction he chooses. In contrast, it’s Conroy that currently looks like he has a personal grudge — a grudge against anyone who dares question his pet NBN project. It’s this arrogance that has lost Conroy any smidgeon of support he once had for the internet filter project, and now it’s spreading to the NBN as well.

In Conroy’s world, any criticism of the NBN project is blasphemy. But as Turnbull has pointed out — that argument simply represents a false dichotomy.

Why the hell should Turnbull let Conroy have his way now? He’s got the Senator on the run. All he needs to achieve is some modest concessions from the Government on the NBN — which he appears close to — and six weeks after the Coalition lost the election (in a manner of speaking), he’s got a claim to being the most successful member of the Shadow Cabinet, on a national issue which Tony Abbott clearly knows nothing about.

Sounds like a comeback recipe to take that little problem off Mr Rabbit’s hands.

The ultimate victory, of course, in this daily battle, would be if Turnbull could get his NBN transparency bill voted into law before Conroy could get his Telstra separation bill done. At that point you’d have to ask: Who’s the better telecommunications legislator?

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. The NBN is a political pushover, not because the concept is bad, but because the project management is so bad.

    In 18 months they have delivered 262 working services at a claimed cost of $37M (who knows where the $662M NBN has taken from the government has gone, but I’ll stick with Conroy’s $37M number.)

    The fact that 436 premises have requested services but only 262 have received them points to some major breakdown (technical?, supply chain? bureaucracy?) in service delivery. The country is watching, the project is at a critical point, money is no object, Government credibility is on the line, but they can’t connect these services! That says that something serious is wrong.

    If this project was on a linear schedule they should have nearly 2 million premises connected by now. Instead, they have 2040. That is, they are proceeding 1000 times slower than they must.

    That has got to make the NBN the world’s slowest broadband deployment.

  2. The way to defuse this politically is for Conroy to admit that there are NBN problems. He needs to detail the problems as well as the “Get Well Plan.” A new schedule needs to be issued, with targets for numbers of connections per year.

    Conroy’s impersonation of the Iraqi Information Minister must stop. Despite all the spin there is nothing remotely good in the numbers. Denial isn’t going to get this project over the line.

  3. The comments from Slowest Broadband do not in any way accurately describe what is happening with the rollout so far.

    First, the timeframe of “in 18 months” includes around 15 months when key planning, decision making and preparation were taking place. Everyone understands that the NBN is a project on a vast scale, and there has been much review and working out many of the nuts and bolts of the plan, from the overall network architecture to the development of specifications for tenderers and suppliers.

    The key thing to remember about the 3 Tasmanian towns that are first to go live is that this is largely a technical trial – a sandbox to see what works and what doesn’t, how the bits and pieces of the network get fitted together and how different installation techniques work in the real world. They are not in any respect a trial of customer interest to establish demand. If that had been the intention, the trial would have taken place in areas of Sydney and Melbourne filled with yuppie professionals and likely “early adopters”, not a few regional towns in Tasmania with relatively low socio-economic characteristics (that’s not unkindly meant).

    Without wanting to get bogged down with the takeup figures so far (which are in themselves just a point-in-time snapshot), the whole purpose of the trial is to test all the technologies and systems that are needed to get services up and running. This means, inevitably, that activation will not be as smooth and streamlined as when things are all bedded down. Bumps and delays are normal and to be expected at the trial site, and do not in any way indicate “problems”. A further point to note is that Mike Quigley, (NBNCo CEO) already established that their target was 6-12% takeup within 12 months. They have achieved this in 3 months – surely a sign that things are going well, not badly. (Remembering also that even 12 months is merely the start of an intended 50 year lifecycle.)

    The fuzzy maths based on the premise “if this project was on a linear schedule…” is unfounded scaremongering. I suspect that the correspondent above knows full well that no rollout or undertaking of this scale is ever “linear” in schedule. To posit this as the basis of meaningful analysis is a complete furphy. This is, as I have outlined, just a technical test site in limited areas. Further areas on the mainland and in Tasmania are being rolled out now, and even this is just the early ramping up of a project that will not hit full steam for another 2-3 years at least. At its peak, the NBN is expected to employ around 25,000 people – but noone would claim they are anywhere near that yet. At that time we can talk meaningfully about whether or not they are on schedule.

    And there will be plenty more information in weeks and months to come. From the business case and the announcement of the rollout sites for the next 18 months (due in November?) to further point-in-time figures of takeup, which will no doubt be breathlessly reported by The Australian: “In Willunga, only 8% have taken up top-speed packages on the XYZ telco’s plan in the first 6 weeks…” None of which will give any meaningful insight into whether or not things are on target or objectively successful. Grannies will be interviewed on queue to say “I don’t know what this NBN is or why it costs so much money – I don’t want it!” and wireless broadband providers will tut and declaim how their product would be really much better suited to people’s needs.

    And the NBN will continue to roll out successfully, on a grand scale, and happy customers will begin to accumulate to the point where people and businesses not in the first (or second or third) release areas will start clamouring louder and louder for when their area is due to get the rollout.

  4. Dear Sith overlord
    Saying that Malcolm Turnbull is the most effective shadow minister yet, is like saying that Justin Bieber’s latest song is his best yet. A chimpanzee with a sock puppet could have been a more effective shadow minister than Tony Smith was.
    I do agree that Turnbull is the “thinking man’s Shadow Minister”. And in thinking so extensive, he has also become a great ally to Labor’s cause: after being enlisted by Tony Abbott to “demolish” the NBN, Turnbull has not only reversed longstanding Liberal policy opposing the separation of Telstra, but let himself be backed into a corner where now freely admits he could be convinced to support Labor’s NBN.
    We can all agree that Turnbull is an intelligent and competent orator – and in that sense he is a perfect foil for Conroy, who has on numerous occasions proved himself his own worst enemy when facing barrages of the same old, tired questions from the same old, tired critics in front of the same old, tired audiences.
    What Turnbull has achieved truly is, as you say, stunning. Abbott’s policy was to oppose Labor’s model as ill-conceived and over-expensive, but Turnbull has changed Coalition policy so dramatically that there aren’t that many differences between the parties anymore.
    Today’s Liberal comms policy is much the same as Labor’s, except that they want a CBA that the government may or may not actually have to conduct. The Greens are indeed considering whether to support Turnbull’s push, but only because they think he may be doing it just to stall the project. If Turnbull can’t win some definite support for his motion soon, it will be as dead in the water as the Coalition’s ICT policy.
    I’m not sure whether Tony Abbott anticipated all this when he appointed Turnbull to the position (I had the impression Abbott had something more devastating in mind), or whether Turnbull is steadily giving ground on Liberal policy to get back at the party leader that rolled him last year, or whether Turnbull’s biggest distinction is that he has been pragmatic enough to realise that the NBN is actually already a going concern and stopping it now would be a colossal disaster that would accomplish nothing.
    I suspect the latter: Turnbull has successfully removed some of the roadblocks to the NBN by all but bringing the Liberals in line behind the project. Now that NBN Co has what we can assume is a solid three-year plan in place, Turnbull’s best ammunition will come from letting that plan proceed, taking copious notes, and demolishing Gillard and Conroy – if there is demolishing to be done – in the leadup to the next election.
    And if there is actually no demolishing to be done? The question then won’t be about Turnbull’s undeniable competence, but whether he will then be big enough to step up sit beside Conroy on the “white elephant” to help make it everything it can possibly be for the country.

  5. PPS Love the pic. Was I the only one for whom this spoke “Batman and Robin”?

  6. Why is the Coalition not even mentioning the proposed National Internet Censorship scheme? This is by far the biggest issue facing the Australian people at this time.

  7. Even with very generous numbers, NBNCo is going to reach the 2.5 year mark with around 20,000 premises and the 4 year mark (half way!) with 200,000 premises. Half way through the schedule with 2% of the job done.

    Contrary to all the hype, the NBN isn’t a technology project. It is a civil works project. This project is mostly about installing cable and cabinets and nearly nothing to do with optical network toys. Civil works projects can’t follow the huge “J-curve” accelerating upswing that a technology refresh on existing cable plant can.

    There is nothing wrong with the concept of a NBN. I want the NBN. Others that want a NBN need to stop cheering and start pushing this project along.

    Denial isn’t going to get this project over the line.

  8. Turnbull bullied his way through the Insight episode, as is his practice. He kept quoting that great exemplar the US which created the GFC and now can’t foreclose the distressed mortgages properly. The country is about to throw back in Obama’s face the healthcare system he “imposed” on them to bring them up to speed with most other countries. They spend more on health than other countries and have among the worse health outcomes and Malcolm thinks we should follow their example!

    Bring on a cost benefit analysis for where we should be with broadband for the next 50 years as long as Malcolm’s bandaid system is subjected to the same scrutiny.

    Although Conroy’s performance has not been exceptional, Turnbull does not have him on the run. He is digging a hole for his credibility and showing himself to be Abbott’s puppet.

  9. Turnbull a bully? I didn’t hear him say that if you didn’t support him you were all child porn supporters…
    X D


    The ‘timeline’ was from the election of the Rudd government. While you (and others) might well be content to just omit that little bit of info, we are now 3+ years in to what was supposed to be an 8 year build. Although I guess the gubmint’s smug assumption that everyone would just assume the clock was reset at the announcement of NBN Mk II was pretty bang on, because no one seems to be making much a ruckus about it… \= |

    re: And there will be plenty more information in weeks and months to come.

    Wow, I haven’t heard that before in the last 3+ years… /eyeroll

    re: The key thing to remember about the 3 Tasmanian towns that are first to go live is that this is largely a technical trial – a sandbox to see what works and what doesn’t, how the bits and pieces of the network get fitted together and how different installation techniques work in the real world.

    Horse puckey…

    Tasmania is first because Aurora FttN bid already had plans for FTTH deployment in them. It was an easy way for Conroy to get runs on the board because they already had the staff, the suppliers, the plans and the expertise to implement them…

    ie. FTTH is not a new technology. Companies in Australia were laying it before Labor got in to government… The technical trial is about as valid as the filter technical trial was, laughable.

    The amount of revisionist pap that goes on re: the NBN attempting to make it look good tells me that any call for great transparency and accountability is warranted. If this plan is so great, there should be no need to re-write history, and there should be no need to Conroy to chase Turnbull’s lead like a demented terrier. The fact that both occur (almost on a daily basis lately) leaves me with very little faith in the Comms minister and his loyal proselytisers. While I’m not a huge fan of the Libs either, the shadow minister is doing his job well, that is, scrutinising the comms minister with a critical eye. With this much money on the line, more scrutiny and oversight is a good thing…

  10. @Asmodai

    Well said!

    Get used to your 2-6Mbps ADSL[+] folks because you’re going to be stuck with it for many, many years if the NBN in its current draconian, inherently snail paced, FTTH approach is maintained.

    Meanwhile our NZ bros are laughing at us with their FTTN/VDSL2 network which is 47% complete already (yes FTTN gets you high speed much more quickly and with much less expense).

    FTTN connected homes withing 1km of a FTTN node get download of 35Mbps – 50Mbps and upload speeds in the vicinity of 7.5Mbps to 10Mbps…. hmmm, hands up anyone who wants some of that candy within the next 12 months here in Australia!

    NBN fan boys want you to keep your current crappy old ASDL connection for another 5-8 years hoping that labor *might* get fiber rolled past your door in that time… based on past performance of labor program implementations and the current speed of the NBN rollout that’s very optimistic – well at least you won’t need to buy a new high speed modem for a while…

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