news Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt has published a series of strongly worded blog posts over the past week arguing that the “gold-plated” National Broadband Network project is turning into the Federal Government’s “biggest financial disaster by far”.
Bolt — who is regularly critical of the Gillard Labor Government on a wide range of issues — has been a long-term critic of the NBN. For example, in October last year he published several posts on his popular blog heavily criticising the project — at the time referencing an article presenting some of the findings from an Economist Intelligence Unit report into global government investment in broadband, as well as another article by fellow commentator and telecommunications analyst Kevin Morgan, who has also been critical of the project.
Last week, following the Government’s release of NBN Co’s second corporate plan, Bolt went on an all-out attack on the project, publishing seven blog posts relating to the NBN, all heavily critical of the project. “This already looks like turning out to be the Government’s biggest financial disaster by far, which – after pink batts, the boats disaster and school halls – is an astonishing feat,” Bolt wrote in one post, referring to another Morgan article.
Referring to the 3.9 percent increase in capital expenditure costs revealed by the new NBN corporate plan last week, and the six month delay which the project has suffered (due primarily to the delay In negotiating NBN Co’s $11 billion contract with Telstra), Bolt wrote: “What’s a few extra billions to stupid taxpayers? What’s a few more delays? This is turning out as badly as predicted.” Bolt also published other blog posts with titles such as “The NBN white elephant just grew”, “I’d struggle to sell this NBN, too”, “The real gold-plating Labor should fret about” and “More gold needed to plate an NBN than a power grid”.
In his various blog posts, the commentator almost exclusively referenced material from fellow conservative commentators on News Limited sites such as economist Henry Ergas, telecommunications analyst Morgan, and Terry McCrann, as well as articles from the Financial Review, which has also been sharply critical of the NBN project over the past few months. Bolt’s blog is published by News Ltd’s The Herald Sun in Melbourne.
However, in his posts, Bolt did not refer to commentators who have been positive about the NBN, such as Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholomeusz, who last week wrote that the NBN was “broadly on track” and that the delays and capex spending increase “will be almost immaterial by the end of the 10-year project”.
The news comes as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy last week delivered a fiery tirade against the media for constantly repeating misconceptions about Labor’s National Broadband Network project, singling out the Financial Review newspaper for particular ridicule and recommending that those interested in accuracy read broadband forum Whirlpool.
The Labor Senator opened a press conference held in Sydney last week to release the new corporate plan by speaking in detail about what he said were a series of “misconceptions” regularly repeated in the media with respect to the NBN. “You often think if Malcolm Turnbull put out a press release saying “Cost blowout in the NBN due to the Earth being flat”, it’d probably lead the front page of the Fin Review lately,” Conroy told the audience of journalists in attendance.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of misleading articles published by various local newspapers about the NBN. In December, the Australian Press Council expressed concern about the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network project, backing a local critic’s complaint that three articles in a short period of time had contained “inaccurate or misleading assertions” about the NBN. Similarly, in March this year, another News Ltd publication, The Australian, published a correction to a story after it inaccurately alleged that a school in South Australia would have to pay $200,000 to connect to the NBN; in fact, the school will receive NBN access as part of the normal rollout. In addition, the Opposition has also made a number of inaccurate statements about the NBN over the past few years which have been picked up by various segments of the media.
In analysing Andrew Bolt’s flurry of NBN posts last week, several things are immediately evident.
In my opinion, Bolt has carefully chosen which articles he referred to last week in making his case that the NBN is a problem project for the Gillard Government. He generally picked only News Ltd articles where possible, and he only referenced articles which were sharply critical of Labor and the NBN, avoiding those that praised the project or were more moderate towards it — even if such articles were published by News Ltd publications.
Secondly, Bolt did not present an alternative to the Gillard Government’s NBN project. In his blog posts, he does not refer to the Coalition’s rival NBN policy, which shares many of the same features as the Government’s NBN project, including a focus on providing high-speed broadband to all Australians, separating Telstra’s operations and using satellite and wireless broadband to serve rural and regional Australia. These are bi-partisan broadband policies in general, but Bolt does not acknowledge this.
Lastly, it appears to the reader that Bolt did not read NBN Co’s corporate plan or listen in to the extensive press conference held by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley last week explaining it in detail. His blog posts only refer to other articles published by other journalists.
Now, I have an open mind and I often enjoy reading Andrew Bolt’s blog. For all that the commentator can sometimes cross the line, in my opinion he does often raise valid points which many more moderate commentators are afraid to go near. Bolt does have his specific point of view on things, and a definite slant to his writing — which is openly acknowledged. But overall he is courageous and a strong voice, and we need commentators like Andrew Bolt just as much as we need those who come from the left-wing side of the fence. I am a huge fan of media diversity and Bolt certainly brings a good deal of colour to the Australian media ecosystem.
However, I can’t help feeling that Bolt has missed the mark in his criticism of the NBN last week. I find it hard to take his point of view seriously when he does not address views opposing his to the NBN; does not consider the rival Coalition NBN policy, and does not appear to have himself read the core literature which NBN Co released last week. In addition, with the NBN project as a whole still projected to make a 7.1 percent return to the Government over its lifetime, it is hard to justify claims that the project is on track to be a “financial disaster”. If Bolt wants to make this claim, I’d like to see more evidence from him to make it. In general, I would like to see some in-depth analysis from Bolt in the area of telecommunications, but I’d like it to be more analytical and more in-depth.
Furthermore, if the Coalition does win the next Federal Election and has the chance to enact its own broadband policy, courageous thinking will be needed to help evolve the current NBN policy to the Coalition’s rival approach. At that stage, if commentators like Bolt don’t focus as much on a Coalition Government’s telecommunications policy as they have Labor’s, then I will be disappointed indeed. Because at this point, the two sides share much of the same core policy platforms. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes.