news Malcom Turnbull has rejected out of hand a suggestion by Mike Quigley that Australia’s telco industry independently back a study into the best technology to deliver Australians the next-generation of broadband infrastructure, with the Shadow Communications Minister describing the NBN Co chief executive’s move as a “cheap stunt”.
On Friday, as one part of a speech given to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia, Quigley noted that there was likely to be an increasing debate in Australia this year about the merits of different broadband technologies. The Coalition is currently pushing a fibre to the node-based model for Australia’s NBN, in contrast with Labor’s more ambitious fibre to the home vision.
Having that debate was a “good thing”, Quigley said. “The choices we make about our nation’s underlying telecommunications infrastructure will have an impact on how we live, work and compete.” Quigley noted that telco industry representative body the Communications Alliance was currently considering whether to embark on a study of the different options for broadband in Australia, and added that this might represent an opportunity for the industry to have its say on the matter.
“The telecommunications industry is uniquely well-placed to provide context to various policy choices,” Quigley said, noting that the Communications Alliance had long been a forum for discussion and deliberation with respect to these kinds of issues, and might help “bring commercial reality to the theoretical debate” and give policy-makers the advantage of he best information and analysis which could be made available — not just on technical fronts, but with respect regulatory and commercial areas as well.
As he has previously, Quigley noted that it was possible to deploy a number of different technologies to serve Australia’s broadband needs — from the existing FTTP model, to the FTTN approach preferred by the Coalition, to satellite, fixed wireless and HFC cable options.
However, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull instantly rejected Quigley’s comments, in a fiery statement published late on Friday. Turnbull believes such a study would be more properly carried about by the Productivity Commission. “This is the most bizarre twist yet in the debate over broadband policy. Even more bizarre because Mr Quigley has made the announcement without obtaining the agreement of the Communications Alliance to commission the inquiry,” Turnbull said.
“For almost four years, ever since Labor’s $50 billion fibre to the premises NBN was announced in April 2009, the Coalition and many others have called for an independent, transparent review of the options for delivering fast broadband to all Australians. These calls were motivated by our concern that Labor had chosen the slowest and most expensive way of achieving such an upgrade.”
“We noted that Kevin Rudd had gone to the 2007 election pledging that no major infrastructure project would be funded by the Commonwealth without a rigorous cost benefit analysis and we urged Labor to honor that pledge with the NBN – the largest infrastructure project in our country’s history. Throughout this period Mr Quigley and the Government repeatedly and scornfully dismissed such calls. And Labor’s NBN plodded onward, consuming vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash but providing broadband to only a tiny fraction of the 2 million or so Australian premises with inadequate service.”
“Now, just months from an election, Mr Quigley suddenly wants a review – but a hazily conceived and nebulous review on his terms and timing. This isn’t policy on the run; it’s policy chaos.”
Turnbull appended a list of questions to his statement that he demanded Quigley answer; ranging from why Quigley backed the potential Communications Alliance inquiry, to the issue of who would determine the terms of reference, to the issue of why the Communications Alliance should suggest such an inquiry, to the issue of what role prices for end users and value for money for taxpayers would play in evaluating the alternatives.
“Unless clear and credible answers are provided by NBN Co and the Government to all of these questions, Mr Quigley’s remarks today will be exposed for what they appear to be – a cheap stunt to distract attention from NBN Co’s appalling record in executing the rollout.”
Turnbull’s comments have been heavily criticised by several dozen commenters on his own site, with the general sentiment appearing to be that the Coalition should provide further details with respect to its own broadband policy before criticising Quigley’s invitation to the telecommunications industry to make its views known on the future of the NBN.
“Are you worried Malcolm? You should be,” wrote one commenter. “Yes you can huff and puff about questions that need to be answered, but what it will do is make you and the Coalition give detailed answers as to your own ‘non’ policy. Answers that will sink your farce quicker than the Titanic.”
Another added: “Seriously Malcolm … give it a break. The time has come to stop demanding and start giving. You have argued long and hard about doing a [cost/benefit analysis or CBA] on the NBN and have committed any Liberal/National Government to undertake a CBA immediately upon taking over. What I ask is simple: When will you publish the guidelines for any such CBA and will you abide by any recommendations that the CBA puts up? Without such assurances your words are as empty as Quigley’s.”
I attended Quigley’s speech and had the chance to question the NBN Co chief executive extensively afterwards regarding his views on a range of matters (including the proposed Communications Alliance study). In addition, I have had the benefit of closely following Malcolm Turnbull’s movements and statements in the broadband portfolio for several years nows. With this in mind, I feel that I have the ability to make a pretty good, objective call on what’s going on here.
I interpret Quigley’s speech and his support for a Communications Alliance study into the best technologies for Australia’s broadband future as representing an honest and pragmatic approach to provide some rational underpinnings to this year’s election-oriented debate on the issue. It is apparent to Quigley that no matter what happens, his company will be responsible for implementing some form of NBN, and he wants the debate about which firm to be have a sound basis. It is my view that he is acting in this role primarily as the chief executive of a telecommunications company, as a part of the telecommunications industry, and that he is trying to avoid playing any kind of political role. In his speech, Quigley was at pains to emphasise that there are a variety of technologies which could support Australia’s broadband future — from FTTP to FTTN to HFC and beyond.
In contrast, I view Turnbull’s comments on Friday as almost entirely political, and I also believe that he misinterpreted Quigley’s stance here. Turnbull appears to believe that Quigley is merely mindlessly trying to support his political masters, by supporting a Communications Alliance study of this kind, and that Quigley’s move is overtly about politics rather than apolitical.
But I believe he is wrong about this, and I also believe that such a stance undermines Turnbull’s own credibility in the portfolio. It has long been the case that the Opposition of the day refrain from directly criticising public servants and the leaders of government businesses, as they will need to deal with those same executives if they take power.
In this vein, by directly criticising Quigley, Turnbull is breaking with tradition in Australia’s political sector in a manner ill-befitting the man who is Australia’s acknowledged alternative Communications Minister. As I said, I attended Quigley’s speech, and it was overtly apolitical. The NBN Co chief executive has learnt a great deal about engaging with the political process since the 2010 Federal Election, when he overtly criticised the Coalition’s then-rival broadband policy; and I believe he now feels himself to be in a position similar to most of the rest of the public service — largely on the sidelines of the political debate. The Communications Alliance study he is backing would, after all, provide clarity to the policy of both sides of politics, and be an objective good which everyone should welcome.
In my experience, Malcolm Turnbull’s most powerful statements and policies have come about when the Member for Wentworth has gone away, researched and slowly developed a position on a certain matter (for example, see this excellent speech in October last year on data retention and digital freedom). When he shoots from the hip, Turnbull more often tends to miss his target or shoot blanks, and this is what I believe he did last week. Accusing one of Australia’s most respected telecommunications executives of playing politics with the $37 billion infrastructure he is in charge of … just comes across as a little silly.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull