On last night’s Q&A program on the ABC, an audience member asked a somewhat controversial question of the panel, which included writers, a lawyer and representatives from both sides of politics. “Steve Jobs was an innovator, above all a visionary. President Obama said in a tribute: He was brave enough to think differently. Who in the Australian political scene today, do you think is or could be the innovator, the visionary, who is brave enough to be different?” asked questioner Peter Edwick.
From memory, the initial answer was “nobody”, but of course Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten loyally raised Julia Gillard as the nation’s biggest political visionary. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop, in turn, raised Tony Abbott, comparing the Liberal leader’s tenacity to that of Jobs. At the time I almost choked on my Heineken. Abbott — it must be said — is no Steve Jobs.
And at one point the name “Malcolm Turnbull” was briefly mentioned, to general interest and some laughter from the room.
It had been something I was expecting to happen. If you ask the man on the street in Sydney which politician they most respect — an experiment I often perform in taxis — the name of the current Shadow Communications Minister and former Liberal leader often comes up. Like Jobs, Turnbull has been an entrepreneur (think OzEmail), but he also has a wider vision; encompassing climate change, Australia’s situation in Asia, the economy and more.
In these days where our political leaders seem locked into a cycle of pointless debate on issues few people care about, Turnbull’s approach often feels like a breath of fresh air. That’s why I was so disappointed to see the Member for Wentworth yesterday drawing from yet another spurious grab-bag of flawed statistics from an already discredited source — the Economist Intelligence Unit — to criticise the government on broadband.
Many among you will remember the ease with which Communications Minister Stephen Conroy demolished the last piece of NBN research produced by the Economist. In February this year, Conroy highlighted the glaring factual inaccuracies in a report by the magazine on the NBN, labelling the document as “right-wing dogma”.
At the time, I found it hard to disagree with him.
Yesterday, Turnbull made his first public appearance in Australia after spending time in Europe, where he met with telcos and their regulators in countries like the UK. He used the occasion to highlight a new report by the Economist, which claims the Federal Government is “extravagant” in its spending on the NBN — even more so than the “next most lavish spender”, Greece — a nation on the edge of financial disaster.
“The reaction around the world to the NBN is as was very elegantly, if not diplomatically, summed up to me by one very senior official in Europe last week: ‘From our point of view, your policy seems completely crazy, Mr Turnbull’,” said Turnbull yesterday. “Well of course, it’s not my policy, it’s Mr Conroy’s policy and it is a disgrace to Australia.”
Now, there is no doubt that Turnbull has achieved his aim in commenting on the Economist’s report. An AAP article on the subject has already been published around Australia by dozens of media outlets. The MP has made his point: The Federal Government is spending more money on telecommunications than other governments are.
And yet we can’t help but be fascinated by little-reported comments by NBN Co this week that point out — yet again — that the Economist’s research is seriously flawed in its analysis of the NBN. The Age reports:
“A spokeswoman for NBN Co said the report underestimated the number of households that would be connected by 6 million, and did not recognise the company would make a commercial return.”
And on Twitter, NBN Co spokesperson Andrew Sholl reiterated the point: The Economist report underestimated by 50 percent the number of premises that would be connected. Sholl appends the hashtag #dodgymethodology — and we find it hard to disagree that that appendage is appropriate. And then on Twitter again this morning, NBN Co struck back stronger against the Economist:
“The Economist survey claimed the #NBN will cover 7.45m Australian premises in fact it will cover 13m+ premises by the time it is complete. You have to question a report that seems to have mislaid millions of homes and businesses. It overlooked that Australia is more than 3x the size of all the other top-ranked countries combined and that the #NBN will pay itself back.”
Now, I have no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull is well-read. I have no doubt that he is highly educated, and that he has a way with words which leads to catchy soundbites such as comparing Stephen Conroy and his NBN project to Communist Cuba. This sort of thing makes for great article headlines.
But Steve Jobs, as we have heard repetitively over the past few weeks, didn’t believe in doing market research before developing Apple products. He anticipated and created consumer demand — he didn’t discover it. If Turnbull truly wants to be known as an innovator and a visionary in Australian politics, he must stop clutching at every half-baked twig that passes his way as evidence that the NBN is flawed policy, and start swimming for himself.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull