analysis Last week Crikey leaked a confidential document which appeared to contain a large number of speaking tips for Coalition politicians to help them discuss policy areas in public, including with respect to the National Broadband Network. But to what extent is the document accurate when it comes to the NBN? Read on to find out.
The so-called ‘speaking notes’ document published by Crikey last week (full PDF here) contains an extensive three to four page section on the NBN, marking it a major policy area alongside other areas such as border protection, the ‘carbon tax’ and more. In it, the document divides its tips for Coalition MPs speaking about the NBN into two sections. The first, perhaps predictably, deals with criticism of the NBN project from a Coalition perspective.
“Everybody agrees that all Australians should have access to fast and affordable broadband,” it notes. “But Labor never bothered to investigate how to reach that laudable objective most efficiently and quickly. Instead, we’ve seen a series of false starts, repeated cost and schedule blowouts and a complete inability to deliver the National Broadband Network. In fact after four years and billions of dollars of spending, Labor has only delivered fibre to 4000 Australian households. The Rudd and Gillard Governments have talked an impressive game on broadband, but their record in office is shameful.”
“Just as disturbing,” it continues, “is Labor’s determination to replace the competitive, innovative, consumer-driven telecommunications market we currently have with a giant Government monopoly. Australia is the only country in the world that has totally scrapped facilities-based competition (e.g. competition for broadband customers between the owners of pay TV cables and of copper wires, where both can use their networks to provide the required services).”
The document goes on to discuss a number of what it describes as “Labor failures” when it comes to the NBN, ranging from its refusal to conduct a cost/benefit analysis into the infrastructure, its cost (the document notes that the initial projected cost for the network was slated to be $4.7 billion, but the government’s level of investment has since increased substantially), the level of scrutiny which Labor is permitting into the project and also claimed delays and waste (including advertising spend associated with the project).
“These repeated delays would be a topic for satire, except that so much money is being spent with so little to show, and literally millions of Australian households are desperate for improved broadband (or in some suburbs and regional areas any fixed line broadband),” the document notes. “In 2008 Labor cancelled the Howard Government’s OPEL plan for rural and regional broadband that would have delivered affordable new services to 900,000 under-served households across the country by the end of 2009. Nothing has been provided in its place except promises.”
In general, the Coalition’s criticisms of Labor’s NBN project contained in the ‘speaking notes’ document released by Crikey appear to display a trend of containing a kernel of truth while still broadly misrepresenting the project.
For example, it is true that NBN Co’s own figures show that currently, only a few thousand Australian premises have been connected to the NBN, with a very small number gaining access to the fibre network which is the NBN’s centerpiece. However, the Coalition’s document does not discuss the fact that the NBN rollout is currently targeting hundreds of thousands more premises by the end of 2012, and where the NBN has been rolled out, often there have been very quick levels of uptake on the infrastructure — above 30 percent in some areas already.
The NBN rollout has been gradually ramping up until this point, and has only recently switched into high gear. In addition, national infrastructure projects do take time, and it has taken a great deal of time for the Government and NBN Co to negotiate very complex arrangements with companies like Telstra as well as supplier contracts with construction and equipment companies. With all of those problems out of the way, the rollout is now cleared to go ahead at a fast pace. These long timeframes are fairly common for any major infrastructure deployment.
It is also true that Labor has substantially upped the amount of investment spend which the Government is planning to make in the NBN project – from an initial $4.7 billion, under the previous fibre to the node plan, to in excess of $40 billion currently. However, the Coalition document makes no mention of the fact that the NBN is also expected to make the Government money in the long term, with an investment return currently projected to be between $1.93 billion to $3.92 billion.
It is true that Labor has not been as transparent as it could have been with respect to the NBN; and has only reluctantly released several key documents regarding the project, such as its corporate plan. In addition, NBN Co only last week controversially blocked a wide-ranging Freedom of Information request relating to its tendering processes and the Chinese networking hardware supplier Huawei. However, in general the Government and NBN Co itself have been very forthcoming with details about the project and have communicated very strongly and publicly about countless details regarding it.
There are other examples in the document; but these ones should serve to illustrate the fact that when it comes to Coalition criticism of the NBN, the Opposition is encouraging its members to criticise the project on grounds that have a kernel of truth. However, the organisation’s speaking notes do not provide its members with anywhere the whole truth about the NBN. The document picks small facts out of the NBN project and abuses them to attempt to illustrate a broader trend, which usually does not exist. And where they do exist, they do not invalidate the rationale for the whole NBN project; most of the issues raised can still be addressed within the framework of the overall initiative.
The same is true of the second section of the Coalition’s speaking notes on the NBN, which deals with the Coalition’s own rival policy.
In a section labeled ‘The Coalition alternative’, the document notes that if elected, a Coalition Government would immediately “conduct a fully transparent cost-benefit analysis to assess the quickest and most cost-effective means of upgrading fixed line broadband in all areas of Australia where services are currently sub-standard or unavailable.”
In addition, the Coalition would deliver “superfast” broadband using whichever technology was appropriate and cost-effective, make use of existing network infrastructure where possible, encourage competition in the telecommunications sector, put downward pressure on broadband and telephony prices and provide “transparent subsidies” in rural and regional areas.
However, although its document used substantial detail to heavily criticise the Government’s NBN policy, it does not outline virtually any detail of how the Coalition’s rival policy would function, including what technology would be used, what services would be guaranteed to Australians, how a Coalition Government would deal with the current NBN Co organisation and its future, how the telecommunications industry would be incentivised to provide its infrastructure towards the Coalition’s model and so on.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has repeatedly demanded this level of detail from the Coalition when it comes to its alternative broadband policy; although it is also important to note that Conroy and the then-Kevin Rudd Opposition did not provide this level of detail for its own NBN policy before taking power in late 2007.
Lastly, the Coalition’s speaking notes document also contains a number of key quotes which it recommends MPs employ to make their case against the NBN policy. Of the five quotes, three are from conservative newspaper The Australian, while several are from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. All of the quotes heavily criticise the NBN project using emotive language. But the full context which the quotes were drawn from is not included.
For example, the Coalition recommends its MPs quote Peter Martin, who has heavily criticised the NBN project several times over the past few years. Martin wrote in The Age in June 2011: “You know a business case is hopeless when the company that’s drawn it up has to bribe its competitors not to compete against it. The NBN Co business case has a tenuous relationship with reality. The publicly released corporate plan reads like a cry for help and also an exercise in laying down a paper trail so its executives can say “we told you so” when their targets are nowhere near met.”
In general, the Coalition’s speaking notes document leaked last week contains a somewhat similar approach to the ‘Connecting Australia’ newspaper about the NBN which the Labor Government was last week revealed to be distributing to Australians to help educate them about the project. Both documents contain quite a lot of truth in their pages. However, they also only present one point of view, and omit a huge amount of detail about their subject matter; so much so, that an uninformed reader of either document would be misled about many of the core facts regarding that subject matter.
In Labor’s case, anyone reading its ‘Connecting Australia’ newspaper would witness a portrait of the NBN as a paragon of modernity and efficiency. The reality is that it is a very positive, but still flawed project that has not yet delivered on its promises. The Coalition’s document paints a picture of the NBN as a colossal waste of taxpayer resources, with aims that could be better met through a different, primarily market-based approach. However, the truth is that the NBN is at least partially aimed at resolving telecommunications market issues which were at least partly the creation of the Coalition itself.
However, the Coalition’s speaking notes document goes a great deal further than Labor’s own promotional material when it comes to the NBN.
Labor’s material regarding the NBN appears to be broadly accurate; it errs only by omission (it does not present the whole truth). In the Coalition’s case, its speaking notes document displays what appears to be a deliberate distortion of many of the key facts about the NBN. An informed reader is forced to conclude, upon reading it, that the Coalition is providing information about the NBN to its MPs that would lead them to mislead their constituencies about the project.
I believe the Australian population will put up with the odd bit of propaganda regarding headline projects, such as we’re currently seeing with regard to the NBN. But we should never tolerate political attempts to mislead us wholesale with regard to major projects. I would very much encourage the Coalition to closely examine its speaking notes document and consider whether it actually reflects the truth about the NBN. Because right now, I do not believe it does.
And in my personal opinion, this just isn’t good enough. Although there is some room for politicking, I believe politicians should be broadly focused on telling their constituents the truth, not a heavily biased and censored version of it which is favourable to their own interests. This would do much to illustrate a principle of leadership which appears to currently be lacking in Australia’s political environment.