news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has issued a backhanded welcome message to his new opposite, Communications Minister Anthony Albanese, accusing the NBN of being “in crisis” and of being infected by “the dysfunctional revolving door culture of NSW Labor”.
Returning Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Albanese to the portfolio this morning after long-time Communications Minister Stephen Conroy resigned from the post last week in the wake of Rudd’s victory over Julia Gillard for the Prime Ministership. Rudd also made several subsidiary appointments to help oversee Labor’s broadband project, including campaigning backbencher Ed Husic to the post of Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband, and long-time techno-MP Kate Lundy to the post of Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation and the Digital Economy.
However, in a statement issued this afternoon, Turnbull — a long-time critic of the NBN policy and Conroy’s performance in the portfolio — fired an opening shot at the new Government NBN team.
“Incumbent Broadband Minister Anthony Albanese must urgently explain why a quarter of houses ‘passed’ by the National Broadband Network can’t actually get a service over the new network,” Turnbull said, appearing to refer to an article published in this morning’s Financial Review this morning questioning the veracity of NBN Co’s rollout statistics.
“The NBN Co is now a project in crisis. News that the company is seeking a new CEO only confirms that the dysfunctional revolving door culture of NSW Labor has now infected the NBN Co itself. Mr Quigley’s contract was renewed for three years in March – now the Chairman is seeking to replace him.”
Turnbull said it was “clear” that in NBN Co’s “struggle” to meet rollout targets that had been reset to be just 15 percent of the company’s original rollout forecase, NBN Co had turned to “cynically doctoring its numbers to hide the full scale of its failure”.
“Latest statistics by Point Topic show that there were 12 million new FTTx subscribers in the past quarter compared to less than 1 million new FTTH subscribers. These numbers show how far divorced from industry best-practice is the NBN rollout,” the Liberal MP said, appearing to refer to global broadband uptake figures.
“Last week British Telecom’s Managing Director of Network Investment told CrossTalk that – even for one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated telcos – fibre to the premise had proven to be more expensive and complex than originally thought: ‘The last few hundred metres which we’ve got existing copper for, it’s very expensive and not to mention disruptive to the customers or to the businesses, to deploy fibre over that last drop. We found it was significantly more expensive and also took a lot longer – it had a much more complex provision process.'”
Turnbull also called upon Albanese to answer a series of basic questions about the NBN rollout, ranging from how many houses NBN Co had passed at June 30 to how many houses could actually connect to the network and how many active connections NBN Co had. The Liberal MP also wants Albanese to confirm he has confidence in NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley and to detail whether there was “in-fighting” at the executive and board level at the company.
“Does the Minister still agree with his statement that infrastructure funds should only be “allocated after a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of what each project will contribute to national productivity”?” Turnbull asked, referring to a statement by Albanese published in The Australian newspaper in May 2008. “Why doesn’t this apply to the NBN? Will the Minister now commit to a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN?”
Albanese has not been hesitant to criticise Turnbull in public previously with respect to the NBN. In addition, it is likely that the pair will come into more direct confrontation than was possible in the past with respect to the NBN, given that like Turnbull, Albanese holds a seat in the House of Representatives, rather than in the Senate, as ex-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy does.
Only last week Albanese attacked Turnbull in the House of Representatives.
“Of course the Shadow Minister for Broadband and the Copper Economy [Malcolm Turnbull] is not alone in arguing the merits of copper in this Chamber,” Albanese said at the time. “Indeed, Mr Thomas Brown, a member, is recorded as arguing in the old chamber at the old place (old Parliament House): “Copper is used for greater efficiency”. He was out there arguing the case for copper, just like the Member for Wentworth today. You can look it up in Hansard – it was on 23 November 1910. This bloke would have been a visionary 103 years ago, but today he is way behind.”
“Let me tell you there were similar nay-sayers back then. There was a fellow that the Member for Wentworth could relate to, Mr Mathews. He said this: ‘The practical men in the Department, not the theorists, think that nothing is gained by using copper wire for short lines. Some of the iron wire lines have been in use for thirty years, and give as good results now as copper wire lines.’”
“You can just envisage the Member for Wentworth back then with a top hat on rocking up to parliament and saying: ‘We don’t need this copper rubbish. The iron is fine’. Just like today he argues, ‘We don’t need the fibre. The copper is fine,’ and just like the Leader of the Opposition [Tony Abbott] who sees Sonny Bill Williams at a launch and goes, ‘Oh, is that Sonny Bill or is that an apparition?’”
Welcome to the portfolio, Mr Albanese. It should be apparent right from the start that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park.
I’m in two minds about how Albanese should respond to this instant attack from Turnbull this morning. On the one hand, Turnbull’s got a point in quite a few of his statements. The NBN rollout is behind and it’s time for another update so that we know how far behind it is. In addition the allegations raised in the Financial Review this morning regarding NBN Co’s search for a CEO replacement need to be answered immediately. These are serious issues about a serious project, and the Australian public deserves transparency on the issue. I strongly support Turnbull raising the list of questions which he did — they are are all valid questions to ask NBN Co and Albanese, and ones I would ask myself if I was button-holding Albanese at a doorstop.
However, on the other hand, it would somewhat politically demean Albanese to simply answer whatever questions Turnbull chooses to put to him on day one. Let’s not forget that Albanese is not, as Conroy was, only the Communications Minister. Albanese is also the Deputy Prime Minister, and so technically on a substantially higher level of importance than Turnbull, with much wider portfolio responsibilities. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to get too involved in slagging the the Duke of Double Bay.
I’d like to see Albanese take advantage of Ed Husic’s newly minted appointment to the portfolio and set the Member for Chifley on the attack regarding Turnbull’s statement. Husic can be as much of an attack dog at times as Conroy was, and he’s been champing on the bit over the past few years to get his teeth stuck into the broadband portfolio. He’s also highly technically adept, as the former national president of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union. Not that it matters in terms of House of Representatives debates now that Parliament has finished sitting until the election, but Husic’s also a lower-house MP like Turnbull, and could do with a bump in his electorate polling that could come about through a higher profile, to ensure he keeps his seat in September.
Albanese probably doesn’t need that same bump to hold his seat of Grayndler (although the Greens are challenging in it). It’d be good to see him sic Husic on Turnbull, with a mind to Husic getting a higher profile through such a debate and bringing some fresh energy to tackle the Earl of Wentworth’s arguments. With Conroy being a bit tired recently, I’ve been itching to see a Husic versus Turnbull cage match for some time. Let’s hope Albanese decides to delegate.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull