news A number of commentators and politicians have questioned a claim by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the Coalition would not “cancel or roll back” the Government’s National Broadband Network project, with one commentator labelling the claim as “disingenuous”.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last week, Turnbull stated that a Coalition Government would proceed with the NBN project. “No, the Coalition will not cancel or roll back the NBN,” he said. “The NBN will continue to roll out but we will do so in a cost-effective manner in particular in built-up areas.”
The comments echo comments Turnbull made earlier last month, when the Liberal MP publicly gave what he described as a “solemn undertaking” to the Australian people that a Coalition Government would “complete the job of NBN Co”, instead of ripping up the network or abandoning Labor’s NBN policy altogether.
The comments appear to represent something of a backflip for the Coalition. When Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was appointed to the role in September 2010, the ABC reported that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had ordered the Member for Wentworth to “demolish” the NBN. At the time, Abbott said he believed the NBN would “turn out to be a white elephant on a massive scale … school halls on steroids”.
Coalition telecommunications policy broadly focuses on fibre to the node-style broadband, which only requires rolling out fibre to neighbourhood cabinets and using Telstra’s copper network for the rest of the distance to residences and business premises. In comparison, Labor’s NBN policy would see fibre rolled out all the way to premises, in a rollout style which features dramatically greater speeds (up to 1Gbps, compared with an expected up to 80Mbps) and faster network latency compared with the Coalition’s plan.
Asked about the apparent Coalition change of policy on Saturday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard rejected Turnbull’s claim that a Coalition Government would continue the NBN project. “What are your thoughts on the Coalition backflip on the NBN, they’re going to keep it now?” a journalist asked Gillard. “The only government that will build the National Broadband Network is this Labor Government,” the Prime Minister replied.
On Sunday, telecommunications industry worker and commentator Michael Wyres — who has been broadly positive about the NBN — labelled Turnbull’s comments that a Coalition Government would continue the NBN to be “disingenuous”.
“There has been yet more FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] and disingenuous statements from the Federal Opposition in recent days with respect to the National Broadband Network (NBN),” Wyres wrote in a post on his popular blog. “In other words – ‘We will stop the NBN, we’ll just replace it with our own plan, but keep calling it the NBN so we can say we completed it.'”
“The opposition show over and over again that they care little for truth with respect to the entire NBN debate,” Wyres added. “We know that the opposition plan will cost even more in the long run, and that the technologies their plan relies on are dead-end technologies. It is time Turnbull and the entire opposition stop playing three-year political “our solution is cheaper” games, and start thinking of the future of our nation. There is nothing wrong with leading the world – but the opposition just wants to get into government, no matter what it takes.”
Key to the Coalition’s concerns about the NBN is the fact that the fibre rollout has grown more and more delayed over its period of implementation, with the Coalition believing its fibre to the node-based alternative could be delivered faster and cheaper.
Turnbull also last week heavily criticised NBN Co’s rollout performance, in a detailed speech delivered to parliament. “In their corporate plan, the NBN estimated that by 30 June 2012—in other words, by the end of this month—there would be 145,000 households passed with the fibre optic cable. As of May, 18,200 premises were passed; so not even 15 per cent has been achieved,” said Turnbull.
Turnbull — who may be one of the key figures involved in setting policy for the future of the NBN project in a Coalition Government — went on to describe the project’s deployment so far as “a colossal failure”. “In the industry, there is general amazement at the slowness of the NBN Co.’s rollout,” he said. “There is general amazement and disappointment at what appears to be much less than competent management on the part of the NBN Co.”
In April, NBN Co informed the Parliamentary Committee into the NBN that it would be revising its initial targets for its rollout as detailed in its previous corporate plan. The company has delivered a new corporate plan, including new targets, to the Government, but the plan has not yet been published publicly. At the time, NBN Co told the committee that a number of factors on which its rollout schedule had depended, namely the availability of telephone exchange facilities to deploy its points of interconnect connections, negotiations around greenfields fibre deployment and the securing of contracts with suppliers and construction contractors, had “changed for reasons … [it] simply could not control.”
In his speech, Turnbull linked the apparent slow speed of the NBN rollout to the Coalition’s case that technology which it claims would be faster to deploy — such as a fibre to the node style instead of fibre to the home — could be used in some areas. “It is very cold comfort indeed for Australians who have been waiting to have their broadband services upgraded to be told by the NBN, ‘Oh, we will get to you sometime in the next decade or perhaps the decade after it,’ and then, as they lament the leisurely timetable in the NBN’s corporate plan, discover that even on the basis of that timetable, which is slow enough, the NBN is barely able to reach 10 per cent of its targets,” said Turnbull.
However, unlike Labor the Coalition has not yet provided substantial details about how its own policy would be implemented — or what the approximate cost and/or projected return on investment would be from its plan. A number of core details of the plan remain undisclosed.
I wrote the following several weeks ago, when Turnbull said a Coalition Government would complete the “NBN objective”:
“It is fascinating to see how the Coalition’s approach to the NBN has changed radically over the past several years as Malcolm Turnbull’s understanding and maturity in the portfolio has continually grown. I think it is a tribute to the quality of the NBN debate in Australia that we appear to now have come to a point where most sides of politics agree on the fundamental policy underpinnings of much of the policy, with appropriate differences higher up the stack. It would be fascinating to see precisely how the Coalition would (will?) approach the issue in practice if it took Government. I suspect much of NBN Co as an entity and the NBN as a policy would now survive — which is not something I would have said even a year ago.”
However, I now think Turnbull has gone past his initial statements in this area and is indeed being disingenuous. From what we know of Coalition telecommunications policy, it seems clear that a Coalition Government would immediately halt the NBN rollout upon taking power. It would then spend a great deal of time conducting a cost/benefit analysis into the project, before likely proceeding with a radically reworked NBN plan — so radically different that it would be very hard to envision the old NBN policy in the new. The Coalition may complete the “objective” of delivering high-speed broadband to Australia, but it will definitely not do so by continuing the NBN in its current model.
What Turnbull is doing right now is quite subtle. By clothing his new NBN policy in the vestments of the old, he will be able to make it appear to much of the electorate as if there is not a substantial difference between the two major sides of politics when it comes to the NBN, thus attempting to neutralise it as an election issue. However, I do not think Australians are as stupid as some would believe. Polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for the NBN policy, and I think it will be very clear during the lead-up to the next election campaign that the Coalition will not be offering a comparable policy (unless it changes its policy markedly in the interim).
While the two plans do share some fundamental similarities, it is also true that the Coalition’s NBN policy is also vastly different from Labor’s — and that is a fact.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull