news Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey yesterday admitted that the Opposition would find it hard to “shut down” the National Broadband Network project completely if it wins the upcoming Federal Election in September, and would release further details “in the next few weeks” about the Coalition’s plans for the project.
Over the past several years, figures such as Hockey and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have regularly taken a no holds barred approach when discussing the NBN, with Abbott in particular claiming that the NBN was not needed for Australia’s future and that a market-based approach to telecommunications would be a better policy for the Government to take. Hockey has regularly cited his belief that the future of Australian telecommunications would be better served by a focus on wireless and mobile broadband rather than on fixed-line communications.
The approach by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has differed radically from that of other senior Coalition figures, with the Member for Wentworth broadly believing that the NBN project as a whole should continue, but substantially modified, perhaps using fibre to the node technology to see the project “completed” sooner than Labor could with its current fibre to the home model. This has reportedly led to some within the Coalition to be concerned Turnbull’s approach was too similar to that of Labor.
However, yesterday Hockey appeared to swing more towards Turnbull’s view of the future of the NBN, when asked by a caller on radio 2UE (the full interview is available online here, it’s the last audio file; the NBN bit is at the end of the file), “how soon will you shut down the NBN”. “I don’t know if we can, I think we’ve got to reformat it,” Hockey responded. And then, asked by the show’s host “why not just stop it”, the Shadow Treasurer added: “Well we don’t know what contracts this mob have entered into, lord knows what’s going to happen.”
“You’ll hear more from us about what we’ve got planned for the NBN in the next few weeks,” he added. “We’ve talked a lot about it, we’ve done a lot of research, we’ve done a lot of costing, we’ll have more to say about the NBN.”
Asked whether a Coalition administration could sell the NBN, Hockey said he didn’t believe the NBN was worth anything. And he added a later comment about the benefits of wireless technology. “Look, you and I and many others walk around with mobile phones and mobile technology, mobile wireless technology, is the stuff that empowers us during the course of our day.,” he said. “We’re not carrying around cables from the back of our car or out of our pocket.”
The news as the Coalition continues to stonewall questions about the details of its rival broadband policy to the NBN. In its ‘Real Solutions’ policy document published this week, the organisation included only a scant few paragraphs relating to its broadband policy, noting that it would deliver high-speed broadband that was both affordable for families and business and cost-effective for taxpayers.
“We will for the first time do a fully transparent cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network, to find out the quickest and most cost- efficient way to upgrade broadband to all areas where services are now unavailable or sub- standard,” the document states. “This is the cost-benefit analysis Labor didn’t do before committing to spend tens of billions of dollars on the NBN.”
“We will roll out super-fast broadband using whichever is the most effective and cost efficient technology and we will use existing infrastructure where we can,” it adds. “We will roll it out faster to high priority areas. We will end billions of dollars of wasteful spending on the NBN and deliver more of the modern infrastructure we urgently need while encouraging competition wherever possible to put downward pressure on prices.”
This month I made a bet with a senior telecommunications industry figure about the Coalition’s plans for the NBN. If the Coalition wins government and takes Abbott’s professed approach to the NBN (broadly, shutting it down and walking away), I have committed to buying this figure dinner to the value of $200 at a restaurant of their choice.
However, if the Coalition wins government and takes Turnbull’s approach to the NBN (broadly, retaining its bones, including NBN Co, but re-shaping it and focusing on FTTN), then they’ll buy me dinner to the value of $200 at a restaurant of my choice. If Labor wins, all bets are off.
Right now, I suspect what is happening inside the Shadow Cabinet is that Malcolm Turnbull is trying to talk some sense into long-time NBN critics such as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, who would likely take a very radical scalpel to the NBN if they take power in the Federal Election coming in mid-September this year.
And he had better. Because under no circumstances is it a realistic policy for the Coalition to simply shut down NBN Co, sacking some 1,700 staff and walk away from a situation where construction is under way to hundreds of thousands of homes and tens of thousands of people are already using the NBN’s services.
You can’t just walk away from a situation where billions of dollars in contracts have been signed and a ten-year fundamental infrastructure program is in place. That would demonstrate a ludicrous failure of responsibility on the part of the Coalition, and I’m sure Turnbull knows this. Abbott had better realise it soon and listen to the Earl of Wentworth’s common sense on this issue; otherwise an Abbott Prime Ministership will be characterised by the absolute debacle of the shutdown of the NBN project; an event which will live in infamy forever.
None of this is to say that I believe Turnbull or anyone else in the Coalition has a better policy right now than the NBN. However, on the scale of lunacy to common sense, Turnbull’s FTTN vision for the NBN is a great deal more rational than the rubbish Abbott has been spouting for the past several years about ‘shutting down’ the NBN entirely. It’s good to see that Hockey has been listening to Turnbull’s views on the issue, and I hope to see a cohesive policy emanate from the Coalition on this issue over the next few months; costings, as Hockey promised, included.
Image credit: Office of Joe Hockey.