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