news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has publicly backed as “the facts” a number of highly contentious statements by radio shockjock Alan Jones about Labor’s National Broadband Network project, including Jones’ contested claim that wireless represents the future of broadband in Australia.
Jones read a lengthy statement heavily criticising virtually all aspects of the NBN policy and delivery of that policy on air on 2GB radio this morning, followed by an interview with Turnbull. In his statement (we recommend you listen to the entire segment here), Jones descried the NBN as a “schmozzle” and described its foundation as a “thought bubble”, “scribbled on the back of an envelope” in 2009 by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The shockjock has been a long-term critic of the NBN project and is openly associated with the Liberal Party, currently in Opposition.
A substantial number of aspects of Jones’ statement this morning could be considered controversial, in that they run directly counter to mainstream thinking in the technology sector and technical and commercial evidence on several issues. This article will detail two examples of Jones’ contested statements, however Delimiter recommends readers listen to the full audio broadcast to get a better sense of the breadth of Jones’ allegations about the NBN.
In the first example, close to the conclusion of his statement, Jones repeated his claim that the future broadband delivery in Australia would be based on wireless technologies. “The guts of it is that we’e rolling out cable at incredible expense, when the future is clearly wireless,” the commentator said. The comment marks the third time over the past few months that Jones has publicly stated his belief that wireless broadband would represent the future of service delivery.
However, the global telecommunications industry is currently almost universally in agreement that in every country, telecommunications needs will continue to be served by a mix of fixed and wireless infrastructure.
In Australia, for example, commentators such as Telstra CEO David Thodey have consistently stated that they expect Australians to buy both mobile and fixed broadband packages in future, as they serve differing needs; fixed broadband to supply homes with powerful connections to facilitate big downloads such as video, and mobile broadband when outside the home, for access to services which typically require lesser capacity. In addition, mobile towers typically also require their own fibre connections to funnel data back from wireless connections to the major fixed-line telecommunications networks.
Similarly, Jones referred to the fact that in May this year, some 25,000 households in early stage rollout zones would have their existing copper-based ADSL broadband and traditional telephone lines switched off due to the completion of NBN fibre infrastructure in those areas. “We’re now told that by May 24 this year, at least 25,000 households who want to keep a telephone line or a cable internet connection, will have no choice, but to connect to this NBN,” said Jones.
However, it is not correct to state that residents in those areas will lose their telephone line and Internet connection. In fact, those residents will receive a significantly upgraded service, with their existing telephone services being brought to the NBN as a modern IP telephony platform and their broadband connections being upgraded to receive better latency and bandwidth courtesy of the NBN rollout.
At the conclusion of his statement, Jones asked Turnbull what his comment was. The full transcript of their conversation is available online.
“Well Alan I have to agree with everything you’ve said there. It is a very, very sorry – all you’ve done is state the facts,” said Turnbull. The Liberal MP did not correct or clarify any of the controversial statements which Jones made in his broadcast, but in general supported Jones’ sentiments in all of his responses to the shockjock’s questions.
In addition, in some areas, Turnbull added to Jones’ controversial views. For example, he alleged that the Labor Federal Government had embarked on the NBN project “without any idea of how much it will cost”, and that the NBN project had “no budget” and “no cap” on spending.
However, analysis of the process by which the current NBN project was developed by the then-Kevin Rudd-led Federal Government from 2007 has shown that the project was extensively examined and researched by key members of Federal Cabinet before it was approved. In addition, NBN Co’s own predictions about the cost of deploying the NBN broadly proved accurate within the bounds of normal project governance, between the company’s several corporate plans released in 2010 and 2012, despite the fact that a number of major underpinnings with regard to the project — such as NBN Co’s relationship with Telstra and its responsibility for greenfields estates — changed dramatically in that time.
In general, the Opposition has 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. For example, last year, speaking on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press program, Nationals Leader Warren Truss made a number of major factually inaccurate statements about the project, as detailed in this article by Delimiter at the time. In addition, Truss had previously made a number of inaccurate statements about the NBN over the past several months.
In June last year, in another example, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey inaccurately claimed that 4G mobile broadband had the potential to be “far superior” to the fibre technology of the NBN. In mid-May, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott misrepresented the cost of connecting to the NBN, in comments which the Government claimed represented a deliberate attempt to mislead the Australian public on the issue. Turnbull similarly made a number of factually incorrect statements on the NBN throughout March, and in January Abbott got quite a few facts about the NBN wrong in a radio interview.
Turnbull has regularly repeated over the past several months the claim that the NBN could could cost as much as $100 billion to build, despite the company’s own estimates showing that it will require around $37 billion of capital injection from the Government and eventually make a return. Turnbull has not provided evidence to back the $100 billion claim.
Look, I would like to give Malcolm Turnbull the benefit of the doubt here. I really would. Regular Delimiter readers will know that I have long favoured Turnbull as preferred Liberal leader due to his economically conservative but socially liberal values (which match my own), and my respect for much of the work he has done in his varied career. Turnbull is one of the few Federal Australian politicians who I have recently had any respect for.
However, it’s hard not to see Turnbull’s performance on 2GB this morning as anything other than a highly cynical attempt to sway Jones’ conservative audience with a lot of standard NBN rhetoric.
On the one hand you can understand this — Turnbull is attempting to ‘dumb down’ his message about the extremely complicated NBN situation into the sorts of sound bites which represent a common narrative for the audience which Jones commands. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about: ‘White elephant’, ‘stop the boats’, etc.
However, from my point of view, Turnbull’s behaviour this morning, in not addressing any of the highly contestable statements which Jones made (representing a ‘rogue’s gallery’ of NBN misconceptions) represents a failure of conscience on the part of the Member for Wentworth.
Turnbull is fully aware that the future of Australia’s telecommunications needs does not rest on the shaky shoulders of our wireless networks. He is fully cognizant of the fact that those Australians having their copper-based broadband and telephone lines shut down will not have any reduction in service delivery as a result of that move, and that they will in fact see a significant upgrade in the services they receive.
As an informed and intelligent individual who has researched the dynamics of the NBN extensively and enjoys close links with Australia’s major telco heads and industry thought leaders, Turnbull is aware that the NBN is not the image which Jones made it out to be. The project’s concept is sound, even if its delivery has not been, and Turnbull is also aware by this point that he will shortly be grappling with many of the same delivery issues in Government that he has criticised so harshly in Opposition. Much, perhaps most of the NBN policy superstructure will be ported into the Coalition’s own NBN vision as it takes power in September.
For Turnbull to simply sit in front of Jones while the radio shockjock makes disputed statement after disputed statement with regard to the NBN represents a failure on the Liberal MP’s part, not because of misleading Jones’ audience (I think most would be aware that they don’t get ‘the whole truth’ on any issue from the shockjock), but because it represents a beggaring of Turnbull’s own intelligence.
It must gall Turnbull personally to sit through this kind of experience. To sacrifice his powerful intellect in this kind of situation, for populist appeal that neither he, nor the Liberal Party under current polling, needs in order to win Government, is nothing less than demeaning. And in fact it is easy to feel this tension — between Turnbull’s intellect and Jones’ conservative dogma — in the interview this morning. Neither party sat comfortably with the other.
Right now, I don’t so much feel outrage about Turnbull’s interactions with Alan Jones on 2GB this morning. Instead, what I feel is a great sense of loss; loss of Turnbull’s intellect from the great public debate which Australia used to enjoy; and a sense of pity to see a mind as brilliant as Turnbull’s brought low, to the level of panhandling in the street for votes at the lowest common denominator. I dread the day that I should ever have to sacrifice my own mind to such interests.
Far better that we go back to debating the cost of NBN Co’s internal coffee machines. At least there was some intellectual (mathematical) rigor to that particular discussion.