opinion In one of the greatest disappointments of Australia’s telecommunications debate this year, Malcolm Turnbull has done virtually nothing to flesh out the details or address criticisms of his rival draft National Broadband Network policy since it was unveiled in August.
On Monday last week, I, and many other Australians, had the chance to catch Turnbull in scintillating form live on national television on the ABC’s excellent Q&A program.
All of the Member for Wentworth’s strengths were on display for the occasion. His humour — poking lightly at “lean as a whippet” Tony Abbott and describing Paul Keating as “the Kim Kardashian of politics”; his charisma — charming the audience with his deflections of the difference between official Coalition policy and his own views and making self-referential jokes to his leather jacket fetish — and his classical liberalism; turning the Qantas’ grounding debacle into an argument for the free markets.
“The obligation of a front bencher in the Westminster System, when addressed with a question like the one you just asked me, is to squirm uncomfortably for a few minutes,” Turnbull told host Tony Jones at one point, to general laughter.
This virtuoso performance — which won the hearts of the audience — culminated in a passionate plea by one audience member to return to leading the Coalition once more; because Turnbull was the leader he wanted to vote for as Prime Minister. “I’ll take that as a compliment or a come on, if not a comment,” Turnbull replied.
After watching and highly enjoying the cut and thrust of Turnbull’s engagement in the Q&A debate, I was reminded once again why Turnbull is one of Australia’s finest political leaders — passionate, authentic, highly educated, erudite and charming. However, one little issue niggled around in the back of my mind once the program had finished. Why, I wondered had Turnbull neglected to take the opportunity offered by the Q&A audience to push an angle — any angle at all — from the portfolio which he purports to hold, that of Communications?
On the night, we heard nothing from the Shadow Communications Minister about the National Broadband Network. Nothing about the digital economy. Nothing about Labor’s Internet filter project. Nothing about fibre to the node, spectrum allocation, broadband pricing, HFC competition in Korea. Nothing at all. And I realised that this has become a bit of a trend with Turnbull recently.
Appearing on Seven’s Sunrise show on the fifth of November, Turnbull discussed politics, climate change and gay marriage. Appearing on ABC News 24 several days later, he discussed the carbon price and the Australia Network tender. The subjects on ABC Radio National several days later were the same. And on Meet the Press on 13 November, again, it was the carbon tax, the Government’s media inquiry, and even problem gambling.
Nowhere in all of these media appearances over the past month was the subject of the NBN discussed.
Now normally this wouldn’t be a problem. Over three-year term in Opposition, Shadow Ministers always get a bit tired of opposition for opposition’s sake. There are quiet periods where they discuss other matters. They must sometimes leave their portfolio issues by the wayside as they pump the broader party line (recently, for Turnbull, the carbon tax). And sometimes, as with the NBN over the past month, there haven’t been that many issues to discuss.
However, what I am disturbed about at the moment is that Turnbull is not using the opportunity offered him by the media at the moment to advance the Coalition’s alternative NBN policy.
In August, the Shadow Communications Minister unveiled a significant new approach from the Coalition in the portfolio. Should it take Government in the 2013 election, he suggested, the Coalition would focus on upgrading Australia’s existing HFC cable networks, separating Telstra, investing in fibre to the node technology and conducting analysis into the future of the existing NBN.
As I wrote at the time, that policy represents a solid liberal alternative to Labor’s big-spending NBN project, and Turnbull had gotten most of the policy planks right.
However, as I also wrote at the time, it faced some significant obstacles. Explaining to the population why a half-complete NBN project should be substantially modified. Bringing Telstra to the table yet again for another mammoth negotiation exercise. And, of course, Turnbull’s own divided loyalties and ambitions beyond the Communications portfolio.
As it happens, I’m not the only one who foresaw these difficulties for Turnbull’s policy. The exact same problems were detailed in a report by Citigroup published last week, which demonstrated just how elongated some of the dates associated with Turnbull’s policy could be. Completing a cost/benefit analysis by 2014? Completing negotiations with Telstra by the start of 2016? Implementing Telstra’s separation by the end of 2018?
Frankly, by that stage, the existing NBN project would already have been almost completed.
After my initial burst of enthusiasm for Turnbull’s plan, the Shadow Communications Minister’s behaviour over the succeeding months — in which he has done virtually nothing to address its criticism or expound its merits in public — has done much to sour me on it. Watching Turnbull in action in that period, I often find it hard to believe that he has the energy and determination to see his rival proposal through, should he be appointed Communications Minister in a Coalition Government.
What lies at the heart of this issue is one problem: Turnbull is, frankly, not humble enough to settle for the task of reforming Australia’s telecommunications sector over the better part of the next decade.
Unlike Conroy, he is a man with a much greater vision and ambition than that. He has very diverse policy interests, a widespread popularity and a charisma which constantly leads onlookers to describe him as “a statesman”. Turnbull, it is apparent to everyone, is destined for greater things than debating National Broadband Network policy over and over again.
And yet, I wonder if there is a question the Member for Wentworth might ask himself. That question might be something like: What is it that Australia needs most right now? Is it a stable, well-argued and coherent Coalition telecommunications policy which could be enacted from 2013 with a stable and determined Communications Minister?
Or does Australia need a former Opposition Leader, who constantly seems on the verge of greater things, debating almost anything but the policy he has envisioned in his own Shadow Ministry?
I know which one of the two I would prefer.