Politicos reject NBN referendum idea


news A number of politicians and lobby groups have panned the idea that Australia could hold a non-constitutional referendum on whether Labor’s National Broadband Network policy should proceed following the next Federal Election, with most stating that such a vote would be unnecessary given existing popular support for the project.

In an article published over a week ago, Delimiter raised the idea, highlighting the fact that such referendums, called ‘plebiscites’ in Australia, have been held a number of times over the past century since the Australian Constitution was formed, on topics as varied as conscription and Australia’s national song. Such votes do not modify the Constitution, but can be used by the Government of the day as a guide to the opinion of its citizenry on its policies.

The aim of such a referendum in the context of the NBN would be to ensure the continuance of a long-term infrastructure project, in the face of sharp and ongoing disagreement between the two major sides of Federal politics about how and whether the project should be carried out.

Neither Communications Minister Stephen Conroy nor Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded to requests for comment on whether they would support the issue. However, several minority parties and special interest groups did.

Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam, whose party supports the NBN, said he was “a bit sceptical” of the potential for an NBN referendum, partly because of “the long and distinguished record of total failure” which referendums had suffered at the hands of the populace. “The only ones that get up are the ones that have cross-party support,” the Senator said.
Ludlam said he agreed with the premise the argument for an NBN referendum, being that the Federal Government couldn’t roll out national infrastructure — be it the NBN, bullet trains or road networks — on a “three year churn”.

However, he pointed out the NBN already had a lot of forward momentum. Extensive contracts with suppliers and construction companies for the NBN are already locked in and delivering, and the Coalition will face a bill estimated in the Federal Budget at $1.8 billion if it wanted to cancel the NBN wholesale. In addition, Ludlam said it wasn’t clear yet what would happen yet at the next Federal Election (which the Coalition is currently expected to win), noting that anyone who claimed to be able to forecast what would happen in the next twelve months in Federal politics was mistaken.

Of the independents in the Federal Parliament, most are on record as supporting the NBN, but only one — Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie — was willing to comment on the idea of a NBN referendum. Wilkie noted he wouldn’t support the idea. The NBN is very popular in Tasmania and I support it,” he said. “Moreover, it is already being built.”

Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton, whose organisation represents many of Australia’s largest telcos, said that the idea of a non-constitutional referendum on the NBN sounded attractive from some angles.

“But I think in reality we have already had it – at the last Federal Election,” he said. “That election outcome – given the prominence afforded to the issue in the campaign and in the deliberations of the Independents as to who would form Government – sent a clear signal that Australians want a ubiquitous high-speed broadband network to aid their daily lives and business capabilities – and that they are willing to see the Government invest in making that happen.”

“I am not sure that a referendum on the terms proposed at the next election would add much to that conclusion,” Stanton added. “It might even cloud the issue if we emerged with a response that said that the NBN roll-out should proceed exactly as envisaged under the current NBN Co business plan – or if the answer (as so often happens in Australian referenda) was “No”.”

The Comms Alliance chief said his reasoning on the matter was that the NBN plan would “inevitably change” during the roll-out period in any case.

“Mike Quigley has said himself that the learning of the early phase roll-out will likely inform changes in the plan,” he said. “Just a few examples are that some individuals and communities will opt to buy their way onto the fibre footprint, some communities will opt for satellite coverage instead of fixed wireless and roll-out experience might influence the equipment and roll-out methods used. I would imagine that at some stage during the roll-out the technology will evolve from GPON to 10GPON. Evolution of the plan is entirely appropriate as more experience is gained, and given the march of technology during the period.”

Equally, Stanton said, if there was a change of Government, the incoming Government should have every right to scrutinise the project and make amendments – provided it heeded the message that the Australian public wants an outcome: “a high speed network that will add value to their lives and inject horsepower into the development of Australia’s digital economy”. “So the outcome and public benefit should be paramount,” he added. “I believe that Australian public has already sent a message about what they want – a message that I think has been heard clearly by both sides of politics.”

I kind of suspect that the idea for a NBN referendum would be welcomed with this kind of reaction. The general view on the idea, which was also espoused by a number of readers over the past week, was that it is a nice one in theory but unworkable in practice.

Perhaps this says more about our political system in general than it does about the NBN. Like many people, I am one of those Australians who doesn’t believe that a national poll between two largely undesirable political options, many of whose policies you will both like and dislike, is a particularly democratic system of running a country.

I’d like to see a more nuanced system of more direct democracy; one in which the Government polls its citizenry on a more regular basis, on smaller issues. One suspects that if this sort of system could be used, issues such as the NBN, gay marriage, Australia’s intake of asylum seekers, our participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other issues could have been resolved much more quickly and painlessly … and according to the wishes of the general population, rather than a small segment of it.

In 2012, it is also clear that the technology for such direct democracy does exist; with the appropriate security systems in place, it could be done remotely over the Internet. Of course, one also suspects that the debate over the implementation of such a system would prohibit it being implemented in the first place ;)

Image credit: Still from Gladiator


  1. I want the entire internet turned off for 1 week in Australia. So those that whinge we don’t need it ( who obviously have a service ) can see what THE MAJORITY of Australians have to put up with. I’m sick to death of ‘ wireless ‘ or the ‘ current ‘ network being OK bullshit. Get lost! The current situation in OZ is disgraceful and we should start taking the service away from those that say it’s sufficient. They are happy to discriminate so I say lets start sharing the love!

      • Has Abbott worked out how to turn on his Mac? He will need to go to office works to buy a copy of the internet too.

        • At my first job many years ago at a major legal firm, one of the most senior partners in the organisation rang the helpdesk to complain that his password had expired, and that he was unable to login.

          Resetting his password, I discovered that his password had in fact been expired for almost two years.

          This is how I imagine Tony Abbott deals with the technology in his office too.

          • should have BOFH’d him :D the latest one was kind of related, actually.

            the term helldesk is most apt, ive always thought.

      • Hear hear! If the naysayers believe that wireless is good enough for broadband it would be hypocritical for them to use anything other than wireless when the copper lines are turned off.

        • Of course the total irony in that statement is that increasing numbers of BB users are turning off the copper voluntarily and are happy with a total wireless BB and telephony solution.

          • Dear Alain.

            Praytell from what statistical pot of whimsy you ascertained this magical factual conclusion…

          • Telstra figures on wireless only residences which is following the increasing overseas trend especially USA of wireless only residences.

          • “Though mobile technology was an absolute unstoppable trend, he said the speed, performance and cost of fixed line services were much, much better.

            Congestion on the mobile network already saw incentives to people in the United States to return to the fixed line network.”

            Michael Malone 25 Feb 2012

          • I know quite a number of people with wireless only. A few are in there 70s and 80s and don’t use broadband. 1 uses it, but just for email. They say they will get broadband once their child gets to kinder age. The rest have no choice, they are waiting for ports on RIMs or in a location with no ADSL2 available because they are too far from the exchange (in Melbourne suburbs)

          • Noddy, both sets of our parents are nearly 80, and both have used VoIP for over three years now. They are fortunate because they live close enough to the exchange in theiry respective country towns to get ADSL. Friends just a few blocks further away are unable to use VoIP, and incur an extra $60 of phone call costs/plans on top of their copper line rental.

            The fact is that yes, in the period June-December 2011, mobile broadband services in Australia reached 5.6 million, compared to 5.5 million fixed broadband services. But mobile services delivered only 6.7% of broadband data, down from 7% in June 2011. The reason is of course the explosion of smartphones and tablets, which always switch to Wi-Fi when available, which is the preferred wireless service because of latency, bandwidth, congestion and signal constancy of mobile tower based services to date.

          • None of those responses have anything to do with what I said, that is the increasing trend here and overseas to WIRELESS ONLY residences.

            These residences are not interested in the NBN either because they have elected to tell Telstra to ‘disconnect the copper’.

          • I thought it had a lot to do with it. The people moving to wireless only to use mobile voice. The people who do so use very little broadband. It’s been a trend for a while. They have a mobile, why pay for a home line. They use very little internet data, why use a landline, mobile is fine for their purpose.
            I guess your point is that they wouldn’t have a problem going wireless? They probably wouldn’t. If they use small volumes of data, it wouldn’t be a problem. If they used large volumes, they could afford to pay the many hundreds of dollars a month it would cost them. If they stream TV they would probably have to buffer it for a while to be able to watch their show. I am sure they could last quite a while on it.
            Give them a family with a couple of teenage kids, a mortgage and an average wage, wireless broadband paid for by themselves, they would be screaming.

          • My comment coming from a reliable source not only addressed your comment about US wireless but refuted it as being totally baseless and incorrect.

            Just to reiterate as you must have missed it –

            “Congestion on the mobile network already saw incentives to people in the United States to return to the fixed line network.”… Michael Malone 25 Feb 2012

            Which part of leaving wireless and returning to fixed needs explaining further?

          • ‘A new federal study says more than a quarter of homes in the United States now have only a wireless phone, and no “landline.”

            That percentage doubled in three years.


            Forty-four percent of folks between the age of 18-and-30 are wireless only. That’s a huge number. And a lot of young adults will never have a land line in their lives.’


          • alain, you are quoting figures for mobile voice, no landline. That has been going on in Australia for years too. It doesn’t mean they get their broadband via wireless. Some may. Many in Australia just go naked ADSL or other technology and drop the landline part.

          • That article based on stats from June 2010, would explain exactly why MM said what he said in Feb 2012, about that trend turning around due to congestion.

            I note too, the analyst Carmen Wong said that, “folks with tight budgets are less likely to be able to carry a landline and a cell phone.”

            Interesting though, 44% is huge when it suits you and 57% is meh, when that suits you…

  2. Direct democracy is nice in theory and appealing to us political junkies who don’t align with any major party on all issues, but one look at the US (especially California) and their ability to put questions on ballots regarding everything from tax to gay marriage to legalisation of marjuana, and one realises that direct democracy will always lead to a system in which the people will vote for endless tax cuts, endless expenditure increases (especially in law and order) and no way to balance these two.

    Also, if anyone has ever manned booths or handed out how to vote cards on an election day, they would know the absolute apathy and disgust that most people have for the system that forces them to come to vote. If you make them vote any more than they already do, absolute apathy concerning anything that has anything to do with politics will reign supreme.

    The solution, I think, is neither direct democracy, nor more frequent plebiscites, but to have a populace that is politically engaged and cares about the issues on hand and recognises as a responsibility to take part in shaping the future of our country. I don’t know exactly how to achieve that, but I think the answer has to start in our schools and our education system.

    • I’m not saying that we should move to a complete system of direct democracy; but I do think it could be a little more direct than it is right now. I do think that when there is an issue on which the national population is overwhelmingly for an issue, and politicians are against it (as is the case with gay marriage and the NBN — on the NBN, when it comes to the Coalition) that there should be some form of direct vote possible, in order to break stalemates.

      • Renai, perhaps this discussion is best kept to technology.

        You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but every single US state (32 of them so far) which asked the people to vote on whether marriage should be extended beyond one man and one woman has voted no. Worldwide, 6 US states (which didn’t ask the people) and three countries permit it, and several of these are considering holding referenda on whether it should be repealed. I expect to be flamed by the “tolerance” brigade merely for expressing the above facts.

        As I said, best to keep this argument on technology only!

        Hope to see you at CeBIT!

  3. The most democratic indication of the so called ‘popular support’ of the Labor NBN will be the next election, then we will find out just how ‘popular’ it is in the real world, way beyond the closeted microscopic small community represented by tech tyre kicking websites like Delimiter.

    • I’m all in favour of that – provided new legislation is passed making it an offence to use false & misleading wording in political advertisements, just as it’s illegal in every other form of advertising…

      Oh, wait, that wouldn’t work out so well for Dr No and the Nopettes, would it?

    • There are many issues, both real and manufactured, that will decide the next election. The NBN will be one issue that determines some peoples vote.

      Minority bashing doesn’t make the minority wrong. Maybe the “majority” will have their way through bullying and misinformation. But then again the politics are all that matter to you, not the truth, not what is best for Australia. It just comes down to you party winning because then you might feel less like a loser.

      • yep if the truth actually mattered we wouldn’t have ended up following the USA into Iraq for their war of terror. So what really matters is how much you can bitch and moan until you get your way… the coalition clowns may win the next election but that doesnt mean people are against the NBN.

      • lol Alex. Beat me to it….. alain, I don’t know who you are, where you come from or whether you’re surgically attached to the inside of Abbott’s brain, but the Election will be about more than the NBN. If the Election goes to the Coalition, that is not an indication the Australian populace doesn’t want an NBN. There are other issues in our country as you seem to believe we don’t understand. One of them being this Labor government have not done a brilliant job at staying stable and providing good governance. The NBN is IMPORTANT though, so it WILL influence SOME people. Yes, people like us.

        And look at the polls http://essentialvision.com.au/documents/essential_report_120416.pdf (page 7- and thanks Renai, got it from you :) )

        57% of Australians approve of the NBN. ALL Australians, INCLUDING Coalition supporters. And it gets even worse for you, only 22% ACTUALLY oppose it- almost as many people don’t know as oppose it! THIS is why Abbott continues to spout his misleading claims, in the hope the 21% who “don’t know” might listen to him. Unfortunately, some will.

        • wow after all this time the best they can do is only 57%, that’ s impressive, I guess that’ s why Labor allocated $20 million for NBN advertising in the Budget, there is still a hell of lot of voters out there that need convincing before the next election.

          It would also be interesting to find out from those 57% what they thought the NBN actually is!

          • You do understand that 57% is a majority?

            Just thought I’d better spell it out as you appear to have them mixed up.

            Don’t mention it ;-)

          • Which leaves 43% who oppose or have no opinion, if that sort of figure carries through to the next election a paltry 7% majority on 50-50 will prove the Labor NBN is definitely not a key factor on how people will vote.

          • So we shouldn’t do what 57% of the people want then? You’re argument seems flawed. My guess is you are on cable or similar and are to either to stupid or ignorant to know what is really going on in the real world.

          • So if only 57% Australian vote for CLP that mean 43% on Australian oppose them and they should implement there policy of stopping a project already in place.

          • alain, I’m normally quite happy to chew through political or personal prejudices to get down to the crux of what is behind the argument of someone such as yourself, please see my LONG and detailed discussion with Matthew over in the Delimiter article

            However in this case- pull your head in. You are arguing against 57% of a population (which is a majority and in politics a large and stable majority) and of the 43% left? Only 22% of them ACTUALLY oppose the NBN. That means 21% don’t know, probably because there is so much FUD being pedalled by people such as yourself, they don’t know WHAT to think.

            If you want to live in a county where all must believe in the project before the great nation building can begin, go live in North Korea and see how your ‘belief’ works out there. This is Australia where democracy rules and the majority rules the Democracy. The majority has spoken. Now, without being too rude….shut up.

          • Lets be honest ‘alain’ – you’ll never be convinced.

            You do not see the point, so much like religion you consider even the notion of “choice” invalid and immoral, and it must be purged from all, whether they believe in said view-point, or not.

            To claim “wireless” is the only future is a bit like decreeing the world is flat. People keep saying it, yet physics and science keep on proving it wrong.

            Wireless, Cellular and similar technologies provide a great option, but they are far more (and will always tend to be) great support acts, not the main event.

            Even the Liberal and National local members (some of the more vocal seem to be in Victoria) are demanding that not only the NBN continues, that it grows in scale, particularly in their constituencies.

            So the people you say are against it, the people whom are “unconvinced”, certainly from a political stand point, are at odds with their federal party. In fact, the political and indeed non-political viewpoint tends to be that we do need to actually do something; that crosses both sides of the spectrum.

            The argument, is really how to pay for it. Labor has chosen a costlier model, yet have offset it as an investment. The no-alition wants “big business” to build it, and will throw token tax money at it. Much as they have always done.

            It’s worked out real well so far, hasn’t it?

            A referendum would achieve a vehicle for every idiot with a need for five-minutes of fame to come out of the woodwork and shoot down any sensible outcome, or grind their favourite axe.

            Sound familiar? No, of course it doesn’t. Right? ;)

          • I don’t think it’s a matter of convince. He may even believe what he says is BS. It’s a matter of supporting his party.
            A co worker who spends a lot of his time studying politics told me the other day that many retrenched older generation workers who become bitter towards the world become the most vocal Liberal supporters.

            Most here use one method:
            Examine the evident, choose the best solution.

            What solution do I want, put forward arguments that support it.

    • Well the election will be closer than you think, if your stats method is used.

      According to your logic even if the Coalition receive 57% they won’t have a mandate to govern, will they?

  4. Hooroo Al, tell Tony and mal we are thinking of them…

    …well, I guess thinking for them may be slightly more accurate

  5. There are a number of factors that may skew Telstra figures.
    For example, Telstra heavily promoted wireless to me when I wanted ADSL broadband at my home. Telstra told me I couldn’t have ADSL at my location at all, even though they own the exchange and infrastructure. A call to iiNet and I had ADSL a week later (using Telstra exchange and infrastructure).
    I just spent the weekend in Willunga. You would never know they were hooked up to the NBN. No hi-tech businesses springing up. No mention of NBN in the post office or local information centres.
    I think the fact NBN Co is supposed to be an impartial wholesaler means it can’t spread the word, and relies on local ISP retail to spruke the benefits, which they don’t seem to be doing very visibly in SA.

    • They did this to me too Muso1. Twice. I don’t even bother with Telstra for fixed line now, although I wish someone had a decent competitor to the T-Box….

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