Give Turnbull a break, he’s a funny bastard


opinion There’s been a fair degree of animosity directed at Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the past 24 hours over his claim that there is no evidence that Australians would benefit from higher speeds than available under ADSL2+ broadband.

Over the past day, the one-time Opposition Leader and current Liberal NBN go-to guy has fielded insults from all sides. One reader described Turnbull on Twitter as “a lying luddite”, while another compared the member for Wentworth to former IBM president Thomas Watson, who famously predicted in 1943 that “there is a world market for maybe five computers”.

A third reader claimed Turnbull still lived “in the dark ages”, while another referenced Bill Gates’ famous statement that 640Kb of memory on a PC ought to be enough for everyone.

A number of readers noted that they used to have respect for Turnbull, referencing him as an inspirational leader with ideals. But that time had passed, many claimed. “Seriously, you are eroding your fine political capital quicker than a Toowoomba Queenslander in a flood,” wrote one wag — perhaps in poor taste given this week’s events in Queensland.

Personally, I believe Turnbull’s doing a fine job as Shadow Communications Minister, keeping Stephen Conroy and his pet NBN project accountable, and God knows Labor needs this kind of scrutiny. However, there is no doubt that the Liberal MP, despite all his gravitas, leadership ability and mental capacity, is foundering a bit right now.

The problem is a strategic one for Turnbull.

The Liberal MP is a tactical genius. His sustained attack on Labor over whether the NBN project needed a cost/benefit analysis bore strong fruit for the Coalition, garnering the support of many business leaders and polarising the community as to whether the project should go ahead immediately.

In parliament, Turnbull’s legislative moves — while broadly defeated — brought a degree of debate to the project which it had sadly been lacking, regular interjections from Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam notwithstanding. And Turnbull’s personal charisma has also held him in good stead, with many Australians favourably comparing the Liberal MP’s cool charm with the heated and arrogant Conroy.

However, the fact remains that Turnbull will only be able to do so much with the communications portfolio with the flawed Coalition policy he is attempting to push.

One fact stands in his way: By the time the next Federal Election rolls around in a few years, at least 1.7 million premises will be receiving NBN services. The Coalition simply cannot take a policy to the next election which consists of “dismantling” or halting the rollout of the NBN. It would be political suicide. Those Australians who had not yet received NBN services would revolt in mass as their glorious fibre-optic future was denied them.

I’m not sure whether Tony Abbott realises this — when I asked him directly about it several weeks ago, he avoided the question.

But Turnbull must.

The Shadow Communications Minister’s task over the next several years, if we wishes to truly debate the dynamics of the NBN, must be to reform Coalition telecommunications policy to include the NBN — and re-shape it in a more fiscally conservative image, if possible. Until Turnbull can achieve this feat — and this is best done as soon as possible — the Member for Wentworth will find all of his tactical victories to be hollow ones, because they will not address the Coalition’s wider policy challenges — and the core desires of the electorate.

The last thing I want to say about Turnbull, is, let’s give the poor man a break.

You have to admit, over the past couple of days, that the former Opposition Leader has fielded the tsunami of dissent directed at him on this site and others, as well as through social media channels, with extremely good grace.

“U old charmer,” Turnbull replied, upon being described as “a lying luddite” yesterday.

“And the fibre pits won’t flood?” he wrote, referring to Queensland’s current woes and the impact on the NBN. “Or will the NBN conquer gravity too?” He referred another critic to a series of papers on broadband, before asking whether their speed was “2slow4google”.

When we took the Liberal MP to task for issuing a media release on New Year’s Eve last year, he replied: “It is a working day Renai!!” And earlier, to another critic: “Rabid too? You cut me to the quick!”

So let’s not give up on Turnbull just yet. He’s not offended by the ferocious debate he’s engaged in, day in, day out, tweeting from his iPad in every free moment.

This intelligent, responsive, charismatic, technologically savvy and ambitious politician is currently barking up the wrong tree with respect to the NBN and feeding the public a lot of crap about speeds — even if his financial arguments are sound.

But many suspect he’s right now fighting his own battle inside the Liberal Party to get a worthy telecommunications policy up and drag the true luddite — Tony Abbott — into the twenty first century. So let’s give him a chance to do so before we damn him to the rubbish heap of failed Shadow Communications Ministers, where names like Tony Smith, Nick Minchin and Bruce Billson are engraved in rotting stone.

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


      • Whether he’s right or wrong about the NBN – (obviously, I believe he’s wrong) – you have to admire Malcolm – at least he has the balls to engage with people on the ground.

        Conroy wouldn’t know where the ground is, despite his ass… ;)

  1. If the NBN turns out to be under-subscribed and over budget, winding it back will be a big winner of a policy by the next election. Sure, some will be upset that they are missing out, but how well did the geek agenda go at the last election? We’ve still got a filter on the table …

    • Sorry Simon, I don’t agree. Australia loves the “me too” attitude. The nation will never suffer some suburbs to have fibre laid out to their houses and others not under a cancelled NBN. That would cause an ongoing uproar.

      • Oh you mean like the ‘uproar’ as a result of the last election where Labor romped it in with heaps of seats to spare on the NBN rollout ticket and the Coalition was so far behind with their no NBN policy it was clear mandate by voters for the NBN rollout.

        That’s right Labor is just clinging onto Government courtesy of the Independents and a Green vote, and are only a by-election away from another Federal election.

        Interesting statement this one:

        “Those Australians who had not yet received NBN services would revolt in mass as their glorious fibre-optic future was denied them.”

        Depends whether the masses think their ‘glorious fibre optic future’ is the be all and end all that they should aspire to and be motivated to revolt in mass if they don’t get it.

        It’s like all those prospective customers constantly revolting in mass at the SingTel and Telstra HQ’s because they dared to stop the HFC rollout years ago!


        The majority that are only using 15% of their current BB quota today probably couldn’t give a toss about the NBN, but we can but dream I suppose, when it comes to pro-NBN argument there is plenty of that and the so called ‘tsunami of dissent’ as indicated by tech skewed discussion web sites like this is more akin to a passing light shower in any realistic representation of what the opinion by the majority is on the NBN.

  2. Well put. Indeed we would consider ourselves fortunate to have a communications minister who actually reached out to the public the way that Turnbull does. So I am inclined to give him a lot of slack because I enjoy the interactions on twitter.

  3. Renai, let’s imagine it’s mid-2013.
    The NBN is running late and over budget. Takeup rates of the .9 million premises it has passed is under 50%. Maybe the FTA TV stations are digging in, saying IP TV will kill Aussie Drama. Lisa McCune and Gary Sweet do ads opposing IP TV.
    At this point the Libs will go to an election saying: sure, we’ll finish it! Sure, we’ll pay more for a longer, slower, less-desired NBN.
    The hell they will.
    It’ll be “Stop Labor Waste” with some horrid re-hash of a wireless “fill the gaps” strategy. And it’ll go down a treat among voters who still won’t care that sharing medical images can save a billion bucks a year in the health sector because that kind of app is inscrutable to the majority of the population.

    • “The NBN is running late and over budget.”

      You’re basing this assumption on what? The competence of Mike Quigley, maybe? The team he’s put together? The speed at which NBN Co is currently operating?

      NBN Co is currently doing a great job with the mess it has been given, and I expect rapid rollout to kick into gear shortly.

      The electorate is not going to let the politicians walk away from this one.

      • Well technically the NBN rollout has been delayed by 3 years. Quigley may be the best engineer, but the NBNCo succeeding has little to do with how well its built

        • How do you figure that?

          Do you think you open the doors one day, and start building the thing the next? There’s a lot of ground work to be put in place before you can just start pushing fibre into the ducts.

          • Indeed, like negotiating billions with Telstra and Optus for their HFC customer base so the NBN takeup figures look artificially at least, half decent.

          • Yeah it’s funny how Telstra and Optus are embracing the NBN with open arms and ‘voluntarily’ migrating their customers across, but only after Conroy gives them billions to shut down the HFC of course.

            It is also interesting that the two biggest ISP’s in Australia that hold about 70% of the fixed line BB customer base have yet to put NBN plans into their BB product lines, yeah they just cannot wait to get behind it!

  4. If we had had Turnbull doing this job before the election the costs would have had to be shown in the budget and NBN might be no more. Nobody has yet blamed Labor for failing in the $4.7B network they promised. Until Telstra shareholders forget they have been blackmailed nothing is certain about the NBN. As a shareholder I will vote against it.

  5. Telstra negotiations are running late already.

    Also, what’s the last project of this sort you saw run on time and budget?

    Vodafone and Optus have both had to re-boot their mobile networks, after shoddy initial builds. That does not speak well for the talent pool available to build the NBN.

    Now let’s talk about Australian houses. Many were built without proper telco ducting, because builders were not obliged to do so. I still shudder at the stuff electricians brought up from my 90 year old house when they rewired it for ADSL ( big bakelite boxes smeared in rancid grease). We all know how hard multi-unit dwellings are.

    I reckon no matter how competent Quigley and his team are, there’s a very good chance of delays and blowouts.

    We’ve already seen low takeup rates.

    And by the next election, 4G wireless may well be a goer.

    If there are delays, a policy of stopping the NBN or reducing spend on it will be a political no-brainer.

    I want an NBN. I really want one. I want FTTH. I think it makes profound sense on many levels.

    But I suspect there are many reasons that by the next election it will be a very smart thing for the Libs to say they won’t do it on anywhere near the current blueprint.

    • // Simon – the argument over “4G wireless may well be a goer” would be a bigger waste of money than the NBN. Do you actually realise the kind of bandwidth that will be needed for applications in 2015, 2020 and beyond ? The technology you are suggesting would require a pole at the end of every street in every neighbor and even then you are constrained by the number of connections into it and what those specific connections are doing to determine the speed you get at any time. Not to mention every wall, pilon, obstacle reduces the strength of the signal.

      This argument has been gone over and over. The technology is the right choice – fibre is the right choice – every other country [ala South Korea and Japan] acknowledge fibre is the way to go. Google is investing in Fibre infrastructure in the US as part of a pilot. Stop the suggestions that “oh, btw a better technology will be available in the future” – yeah obviously – its the future. But we are making decisions now, and the technology we are using now will be future proof, it’s tested and it works.

      The argument that “wireless will be better” is so fundamentally flawed. It was never designed to be as fast as fibre – it’s design for mobile computing – not high speed, secure communications and large bandwidth downloads. There is a distinct difference between the two. Stop suggesting they “will be a goer”. Additionally, and separately, the thought of having that much electromagnetic radiation floating around the airwaves will end up causing health issues.


      He’s in the same boat. Compare your internet usage in 2000 to your internet usage today. Now imagine it in 2020 – the reality is that everything will be online and most people are short-sighted and forget the past so quickly. Your data, your communications, your entertainment, your health, your TV, your home phone. More and more reliance will be on the Internet and telecommunications. The argument “we will never need it” – is just such a stupid one. We will need it. It’s a reality – everyone fundamentally relies on today, and this is not a reliance which is decreasing as a function of time.

      Stop discussing stupid, short-sighted, politically motivated strategies and realize we need this. You should be arguing over how its implemented – not why it is. I am all for cost scrutiny – but the rhetoric around “we don’t need high speed broadband” is just ridiculous. In 10 years time everyone will be complaining – “i need faster internet” even with the NBN and advancements in fibre delivery will allow for that. The libs don’t have an alternative – so instead they just criticize. So turnbull / abbott need to stop focusing on the “why” and start focusing on “how, where, when”.

  6. 1) I think Ludlam has down more then Turnbull on the Communications front

    2) To suggest that Turnbull is a tactical genius is pretty funny actually- he’s got some things right but his (recent) history does include a period as Opposition leader where he blundered tactically a number of times, on key, big issues.

  7. @Tom – I’m not saying 4G wireless is the answer. I agree it is not.

    But let’s imagine an , IMHO, very plausible political reality of 2013. Telstra has just turned on its 4G UltimateG and has trumpeted to the stock market that its initial $1billion investment in NextG has paid for itself so many times it is not funny. NBN is missing milestones and those misses are politicised. Will an opposition that ran on “stop the waste” last time be able to resist doing it again, with Saving No. 1 a vastly reduced NBN?

    • Simon,

      Which alternative universe do you exist in?

      Telstra will always push NextG ever faster, that’s a give in. But, wireless is not the perfect solution in every instance. Further, it will continue to be a “built for mobile” technology, not a broad, low latency highly available network.

      Wireless, despite ever frequent claims to be the single best option, seldom actually works out to be. There are always limitations.

      That is why fibre is being used. It’s proven, scales and is the logical successor to COPPER. The NBN is not fibre. It’s a multiple platform network that leverage more than one technology, depending circumstances. Fibre is but one component of that.

      The NBN will pick up pace just as the CAN rollout did. Given the NBN really is still in the trial phase, it’s unrealistic to consider the results indicative, because over time it’s going to become far more well know and the demand is only ever going to increase.

      • The issue is 3GPP (4G technically does not exist currently, only the standard does) can easily undercut NBN, Verizons 3GPP launch and trial shows ~13/4 mbit speeds during congested time, and peaks at 30/15+ on off peak times

        NBNCo relies on 50% of those people on those 12/1 services actually being on NBN to give them revenue. Telstra (or even Optus) with their 4G can easily undercut that market, and if that happens then NBN is screwed

        • Where are you getting those numbers? Verizon’s network has only been available for one month, so I don’t see how you can have numbers for when it’s “congested” – given that virtually nobody is using it yet.

          • You can google them yourself, there have been various tests done on Verizon’s network when it was launched, during congested and uncongested times.

            In completely uncongested times, the 3GPP network peaked at around 50mb+

            The latency is also half (on average) compared to a 3G network (which is what Telstra and Optus and 3G etc in Australia use)

            The difference between 3G and 3GPP is massive (and even more massive then 4G, which has a standard for average speeds of 100mbit)

  8. Brendan,
    once again: I agree. I know wireless is not the answer. I know Fiber is better. I know demand will increase. Over 20 years online, I’ve personally gone from a 2.4kbps modem and a BBS limited to three hours of access per week to ADSL2+ and consuming 30GB+ of IPTV a month.

    But that hasn’t stopped the Libs getting a lot of traction with a “wireless is faster and cheaper to deploy” argument.

    I’ve never said wireless is better. All I’m saying is that a “we can do this cheaper” argument will be even MORE politically potent than it is now if faster wireless is proved viable.

    I suspect that by the next election that may be the case and the combination of that innovation and a very likely NBN hiccup or three will mean the Opposition can make a lot mileage out of a plan to deliver broadband without the colossal price tag.

  9. I’d rather have wireless internet with no censorship regime than censorship hell NBN.

    • @Sir

      What do you mean? If this filter does get in. (God help us and the Labor Party).

      You will still have the filter applied even if you use wireless.

  10. Poor Turbull, Still nobody likes you.

    I always thought he’d make a better coalition leader than the Mad Monk but he’s no more than his puppet.

    Bring on the NBN.

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