news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has rejected comments by his opposition shadow Malcolm Turnbull that a Coalition Government would proceed with Labor’s National Broadband Network project, describing them as a con, as misleading and “merely pretence” that didn’t reflect the reality of the Coalition’s actual NBN policy.
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.
In a statement issued this week, Conroy warned Australians not to be “conned” by the Coalition on the broadband issue. “The Coalition has over the weekend continued to mislead the Australian people over broadband,” Conroy said. “Mr Turnbull said they would ‘not roll back the NBN’, while his leader Mr Abbott asserted ‘there will be national broadband’.
“This is not a ‘backflip’ on broadband policy; it is merely pretence. The Coalition is not proposing to deliver the NBN. It is the same ‘quick and dirty’ patchwork of technologies that Mr Turnbull has been talking about since Mr Abbott challenged him to demolish the NBN. It is the same mindless reliance on the market that Mr Abbott has always supported. Mr Turnbull has not told Australians what network capacity he plans to deliver, how he will make the network open access, how he will deliver nationally uniform prices, or how long it will take before all Australians get faster broadband.”
Conroy pointed out that the Coalition had not committed to any speed, reach or capacity policy goals for its own rival broadband policy, while Labor’s NBN policy had committed to delivering a 100Mbps broadband service to 93 percent of the population, and 12Mbps to the rest. Similarly, Conroy said, the Coalition had not committed to the same structural reform of the telecommunications industry which the NBN is engendering through the separation of Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms, it was taking a private sector funding approach which would require higher rates of return than the NBN’s publicly owned model — and could see shareholders demanding higher profits be made. They will only invest where they can make a healthy return,” Conroy said.
“The National Broadband Network is under construction now and the design work is being completed for the national deployment,” Conroy’s statement said. “The Coalition has said it will honour existing contracts, but Mr Turnbull continues to call for a cost benefit analysis by the Productivity Commission. The Government is building the NBN because the private sector has failed to deliver high speed broadband across the nation. The Coalition cannot guarantee the private sector will deliver high speed broadband to all Australians.”
“Mr Turnbull has made 772 tweets, issued 26 press releases and delivered 7 public speeches in the first half of 2012. But he has not done the one thing the Australian people want from him – he has not released a broadband policy. The Coalition’s position on broadband remains one of total confusion. The Coalition cannot be trusted when it comes to the NBN.”
In his statement, Conroy provided an extensive list of questions which he said Turnbull had not answered with respect to the Coalition’s broadband policy, ranging from technical issues such as what broadband speeds it would guarantee, to the structural separation of Telstra, to pricing, to the issue of when the Coalition will provide costings for its policy.
Conroy is essentially factually correct here. As I wrote earlier this week, the Coalition is indeed being disingenuous in its current comments with regard to the National Broadband Network. I wrote:
“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.”
However, I also think it’s important to apply the same standards to Labor as to the Coalition. The then-Rudd Opposition, in which Senator Conroy was Shadow Communications Minister, opposing then-Howard era Communications Minister Helen Coonan, took a broadband policy to the 2007 Federal Election which was only a few paragraphs long. I remember, because I reported on it — this is the article I wrote at the time. There were virtually no details of any kind.
Conroy provided virtually none of the policy details at that time that he is currently demanding from Turnbull, and in fact Turnbull’s activities as Shadow Communications Minister far outstrip the activities of Conroy when he was in Opposition. Perhaps if, as Turnbull has suggested, Conroy and Rudd did more analysis on the dynamics of their policy before they took office, the NBN would have been rolled out in a far faster manner than it has been.
Despite all the guff currently coming from the Coalition on this issue, it is a fact that Labor has had the best part of two terms in Government to get the project under way. A large part of its first term was wasted when Labor considered then abandoned its first fibre to the node policy. And its second term has been marred by an ongoing series of delays regarding to NBN negotiations, which perhaps could have been smoothed out through better planning.
It’s not as if Labor, in the Howard era, didn’t have enough time to plan its broadband policy. In fact, it had more than a decade.
Right now, I do believe Labor has the better telecommunications policy. It is well thought through, costed, detailed, and is being implemented. It is the best telecommunications policy Australia has ever seen, and Conroy is doing a pretty good job of keeping its implementation on track. In the absence of a better policy from the Coalition, it is the broadband policy I would like to see progressed following the next election. I really like the NBN policy. It does have weaknesses, but it is intelligent and a solid platform for Australia’s technology sector going forward.
In addition, Conroy is correct in his statement that the Coalition is being misleading with respect to its own telecommunications policy at the moment. I find much of the Coalition’s statements on the NBN over the past several years to be appallingly ignorant, and we have seen recently that Coalition figures such as Turnbull, Hockey and Abbott continue to put their foot in their mouth when it comes to the NBN.
But let’s not give up on the Coalition totally. In recent weeks there seems to have arisen a perception that the Coalition can’t do anything right when it comes to the NBN; that it is ignorant, backward-thinking, stuck with bad thinking. Much of this is true. But, if we’re being honest, for all that, the Coalition and Turnbull in particular are currently much more progressive when it comes to telecommunications policy than Labor was in Opposition. The truth is that the Coalition has to be; Labor’s own policy has become so visionary over the past two terms that the Coalition’s main problem right now is keeping up.
It’s OK to passionately support the NBN. It’s a project worth supporting. But we also need to do so with a sense of history, context and realism about the various political players involved. Conroy hasn’t always been the NBN visionary which he is now, and Turnbull isn’t always as dogmatic, ignorant and misleading as pro-NBN commentators paint him as being. Both have had their moments of triumph and their moments of ignorance (think about Conroy’s Internet filter for a second). The truth, as always in politics, is somewhere in the middle. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. I’d like to see those debating the NBN keep this in mind and keep an open mind about the situation going forward.