news Kevin Rudd has given several major speeches and press conferences pushing the case for the National Broadband Project he launched as Prime Minister in April 2009 to cause a “revolution” in sectors from education to healthcare and tourism; adding the Coalition’s alternative would leave Australia an “economic backwater”.
As Prime Minister from December 2007 through June 2010, Rudd was one of the main driving forces behind the instigation of the NBN project, both in its original fibre to the node model from 2007, and then when it was massively expanded in April 2009 upon the failure of that model. Rudd personally backed the current NBN model and facilitated Communications Minister Stephen Conroy taking it to the wider Cabinet in early 2009.
Following his failed tilt at Julia Gillard’s Labor leadership in February 2012, Rudd retains only the status of a backbencher in the current Federal Government. However, if comments the MP has made over the past week are any indication, Rudd hasn’t given up on his beliefs regarding the NBN.
In a speech to the Urban Development Institute of Australia Congress in Melbourne last week, Rudd brought up the NBN extensively as an example of the kind of infrastructure Australia urgently needed for the future.
“The digital economy is estimated in a report by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to be worth 3.3 per cent of GDP – but we are currently behind the average of 4.3 per cent of industrialised economies and they are continuing to grow faster than we are,” Rudd said. It is also estimated that the NBN could add 1.7 per cent to our long-term average productivity growth by 2020.”
“Therefore the NBN is needed to bring us up to speed.”
The MP asked listeners to image the landscape of Australian small business if all businesses had the type of access that meant they could have a “profitable and productive internet presence”. “It would revolutionise the way Australians conducted businesses by giving our small and large businesses a level playing field in access to cloud computing and access to clients,” said Rudd.
“The NBN will bring about another education revolution in regional areas with access to content and resources for eLearning. It will also transform the way our schools interact with their students, their families, nearby schools and schools on the other side of the world. The NBN will make the government’s investments in tele-health and personally controlled electronic health records pay real dividends in improved patient outcomes.”
“I also believe that we have failed to recognise the NBN’s potential in our tourism sector. Being able to send high-resolution video and photos to potential visitors, for visitors to eyeball a tourism operator in full HD before signing up for an experience, and of course to make sure that the speeds they get in their hotel room are second to none. This is just one example of how the NBN transformation of Australia is yet to unfold.” Rudd also raised the issue of telecommuting, and how it would help decongest Australia’s roads.
“The transformation of the NBN to the possibilities of the future is like giving someone from 1995 an iPad – the leap forward once we have the whole nation fully wired will be mind-blowing,” Rudd said.
Rudd said the current Labor Federal Government had committed to invest in economic, social and digital infrastructure because it wasn’t interested in the “blame game” between the Federal and State Governments which had hamstrung such investment in the past. And he warned that without such investment, the nation’s infrastructure would “fall behind, fall into disrepair, and eventually fall apart and take the economy down with it”.
In contrast, Rudd said, six months out from the September Federal Election, Australia had heard “nothing” from the Abbott-led Opposition about its plans to tackle the national infrastructure deficit. When it came to broadband, Rudd said, Abbott had committed to “simply rip it up” and “possibly lay out fibre optic to the node if you happen to live in the right place, not to all premises as we plan, thereby leaving the problem once again for someone else to fix”.
In the Howard Government’s time in office, Rudd said, the Government had come up with “something like 12 Coalition plans” to deploy broadband around Australia. “They all failed,” he said. “And Mr Abbott’s plan for the future appears to be the same again.”
“This will render our major cities and our regional centres absolute economic backwaters compared to the rest of the world, which is heading in exactly the reverse direction,” Rudd said.
Rudd has also made similar statements on a number of other occasions over the past several weeks. For example, in an interview with Sky News on 17 February, Rudd was asked about whether he had any regrets about his approach when he was Prime Minister. Rudd said he did, but he was also up-beat about the positive things he had accomplished, saying:
“You accept responsibility for these things. And we’d all wish in politics we’d have the gift of 2020 hindsight. We don’t, we simply put things together as best we can, work out what our values are for the future. Work out what policies can make that vision happen for the country, like the infrastructure revolution we’re engaged in at the moment. Can you imagine an Australia without the National Broadband Network in the economies of the 21st Century? The other mob sort of dance around the edge and say the sky will fall in, it costs too much. In five years’ time we’ll say why the hell didn’t we have it ten years ago.”
And in a statement on 26 February, Rudd heavily criticised the Liberal National Party candidate, Bill Glasson, for his seat of Griffith. Glasson had previously been appointed as an “NBN champion” who had been one of those responsible for supporting the project in public and educating Australians about its potential, but resigned after becoming the LNP candidate for Griffith. In 2011, for example, Glasson, a doctor, noted that was particularly excited about the projected e-health applications of the NBN.
“The Liberal National Party candidate for Griffith one day is a National Broadband Network champion and then, when this proves to be politically embarrassing for Tony Abbott, he tries to have his support deleted from history,” Rudd said. “Furthermore, the Liberal National Party candidate has publically declared support for the National Broadband Network in 2009 and 2011.”
“This is not just a backflip, it is also a betrayal of the basic broadband needs of more than 140,000 residents across Brisbane’s Southside and more than 22,000 small businesses. I call on the Liberal National Party candidate for Griffith to have the courage of his convictions and stand up to Tony Abbott on a critical investment for our local community.”
Rudd’s comments come as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has recently confirmed that he expected Malcolm Turnbull to become Communications Minister and have responsibility for the National Broadband Network project in a Coalition Government, following his time as Shadow Minister since September 2010.
For his own part, Turnbull has continued to advocate for an alternative NBN policy based on fibre to the node and HFC cable technologies, while also promising to release, after the election, a full analysis of what Labor’s NBN project would actually take in time and money to complete, an accounting which he believes would leave the Australian public “shocked”.
I’m not surprised to see here that the NBN is still very much on Kevin Rudd’s mind. It wasn’t just Conroy that was an advocate of the NBN in the early days; can you imagine what level of trust and support in the future of Australia as an exporter of knowledge and technology that Rudd must have needed to have had, in order to publicly back a $40-$50 billion (ish) infrastructure project, taking on Telstra and restructuring the entire telecommunications industry along the way?
It’s hard to see more conservative leaders such as Julia Gillard, Treasurer Wayne Swan, Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and so on as supporting that kind of project right off the bat as Rudd did. Rudd was always the visionary in his government — whereas most of the other senior ministers, such as Gillard herself, were more capable administrators. I think much of the unpopularity of the current Gillard Government is based on the fact that Gillard doesn’t appear to have the ability to capture the spirit of the times as Rudd did.
You can see this in the way that Gillard supports the NBN, but doesn’t really appear to fundamentally understand what it’s all about. It’s very much Stephen Conroy’s project — while under the previous Prime Ministership, Rudd had a much more hands-on approach.
In any case, it’s great to see Rudd once again taking the lead on these kinds of issues. The old dog still has a few tricks up his sleeve yet. Like many people, I’ve always personally favoured Rudd as my preferred Labor leader, and Turnbull as my preferred Liberal leader. I’d still like to see an election fought between those two; I suspect that it would very much be an election of lofty ideals and ideas to realise them, such as the NBN and climate change, as compared to the never-ending, ongoing slanging match which is almost all we seem to get these days from Gillard and Abbott.