Conduct unbecoming: How NBN spite has damaged the Turnbull brand


full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
16 July 2013
Image: Office of Malcolm Turnbull

opinion/analysis Many Australians believe the man dubbed the Earl of Wentworth will eventually be back to take the Prime Ministership, after being ousted from the Liberal leadership in December 2009; or possibly to become Australia’s first President. But three years of dogged and at times spiteful opposition to one of Australia’s most popular policies have taken their toll on Malcolm Turnbull in the view of some segments of the Australian population.

There was a deeply insightful article about Malcolm Turnbull published by seasoned political journalist Bernard Lagan on the independent media site The Global Mail in February 2012. The article, entitled Prime Minister in Waiting, does much to summarise the fortunes of one of Australia’s favourite sons.

Penned with the perspective of Turnbull’s narrow loss of the Liberal leadership in mind, but also the glinting hope of his potential return to power at some stage in the future, the piece does much to sum up the foundations of the Turnbull world. It touches on his fortune (primarily gleaned through the 1990’s success of early ISP OzEmail, in which Turnbull was a key investor), the intellectualism and passion for hands on policy research which underpins many of his political views, and perhaps a little swirl of the self-belief which has pushed Turnbull through so many high-profile areas of Australian public life, from a career in the media to the next step in the law, from the high-finance position of merchant banker and now to his current political focus.

The article also references the extraordinary goodwill which the Australian public continually displays towards Turnbull.

Anyone who’s attended a press conference given by the man, or one of his many speeches, will have felt that warmth first-hand. It’s not uncommon for ordinary Australians, witnessing Turnbull in action, to organically feel drawn to express their desires directly to the Member for Wentworth about his political future. Turnbull is told constantly by the Australian public (virtually every time he appears on the ABC’s Q&A, for instance, and there’s even a Facebook page set up) that they want him to return to leadership of the Liberal Party and that this would swing their vote instantly in its favour.

The polls, too, continue to reflect this popularity. Only last month, a poll conducted by the Australian Financial Review and Nielsen showed that a staggering 62 percent of Australians prefer the man dubbed ‘the Earl of Wentworth’ (or alternatively, by many of Sydney’s womenfolk, ‘the Silver Fox’) as leader of the Liberal Party, compared with Tony Abbott’s relatively poor showing with only 32 percent.

And while there is no doubt that Turnbull does have monumental self-belief, there is also no doubt that this belief by the public in the leadership qualities of the man has played a direct party in his political destiny.

Turnbull’s blue blood seat of Wentworth was one of the few to show a strong swing towards the Liberal Party in the 2010 election (11 percent), and is now counted one of the safest Liberal strongholds in Australia, with a margin of 14.9 percent. Overwhelmingly, Wentworth wants Turnbull personally to represent it to the Federal Parliament; a fact that no doubt shores up the MP’s mindset daily. Turnbull will never be in danger of losing his seat in the House of Representatives.

Then too, as Lagann makes clear in his article, one of the factors which led Turnbull to recant his post-spill resignation from politics was precisely an extraordinary outpouring of emotion from the public, the likes of which few politicians ever see. As Lagann wrote:

“He seemed bewildered by the level of support people were showing for him to stay in Parliament, causing Turnbull to exclaim to [John Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos]: “Why haven’t they said this to me before?” The dinner guest gently explained that politicians must not expect such unsolicited outpourings of goodwill.”

I too, have personally felt this level of public goodwill towards Turnbull. When new acquaintances find out that I’m a technology journalist, often the first thing they want to talk about is not the National Broadband Network per se, but Turnbull’s personal fortunes. “When will he return to the Liberal leadership?” I am asked constantly. “What is his support like?” And of course, the ultimate question: “Do you think he’ll still be Prime Minister one day?”

For most of the Australian public, the obvious answer to these questions is “When Abbott eventually falters”, “Not bad, but not overwhelming yet”, and “Yes, very likely he will be”. Some further speculate that Turnbull will not ever become Prime Minister, but rather Australia’s first President, after it, many feel inevitably, throws off the shackles of constitutional monarchy upon the passing of well-loved Queen Elizabeth and turns for stable leadership to the man who co-founded the Australian Republican Movement.

However, there is one influential segment of the Australian population which, it must be said, has virtually turned on Turnbull over the past three years; one large group of highly educated individuals for which Turnbull can currently do no right; one group which seems to slip through his fingers no matter how hard he tries; one group of white collar professionals who won’t listen to his message.

I speak, as should be obvious, of Australia’s technology community, which has broadly rejected Turnbull in his role as Shadow Communications Minister since he took the portfolio in September 2010.

If you pay a cursory visit to technology-focused discussion boards such as Whirlpool or Delimiter itself, or follow Turnbull in his various social media incarnations (particularly Twitter, Facebook, and the comments sections of Turnbull’s own site), what you’ll find is a level of vitriol directed at the politician which it is very rare to find in other elements of Australian society. A perfect example of this could be witnessed last week following a seemingly innocuous tweet by Turnbull, linking recent rumbles of board troubles at NBN Co with the retirement of its Mike Quigley to claim the NBN Co chief executive had been “fired”.

“I had no respect for Turnbull left anyway. But if I did, this would’ve ground it to dust,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter. “Turnbull sometimes forgets he is not in a court of law anymore,” wrote another. “His bullying tendencies are a real worry. A worry for the voters and not doubt, some senior headkickers at Federal Liberal Party HQ, who have much to fear if he ever gets to rule the roost again.” And a third: “Like all bullies, this is a red flag for Turnbull. He has the ethics of a snake.”

The comments on broadband forum Whirlpool were even more vitriolic. “He is sounding more Abbott every day with his negative comments and personal attacks,” wrote one commenter. “Disgraceful, not interesting,” added another. “Turnbull has sunk to a new low. People will hold open the door for Quigley as a sign of respect. Turnbull just ooozes underneath the gap beneath the door. Hang your head in shame Turnbull you grot!” And a third added: “Turnbull has reached a new low in gutter politics. You are a disgrace!!”

These comments aren’t the first time Turnbull has faced this level of censure from Australia’s technology community. In fact, the backwash against the Liberal MP has been almost constant since he was first appointed to the portfolio.

From a certain perspective such antagonism from the technology sector towards the alternative Communications Minister is easy to understand. At a gross level Labor’s National Broadband Network policy has always been very popular amongst the electorate; polls regularly show that around two thirds to three quarters of the Australian population approves of it, and even the Liberal Party’s own research showed that it was a critical factor preventing the Coalition from taking power in the 2010 Federal Election, especially in states such as Tasmania, which have been starved for good broadband for a decade now.

In this context, many have speculated that a vengeful Opposition Leader Tony Abbott gave Turnbull the job of “demolishing” the NBN in 2010 as a poisoned chalice. Becoming the poster child for opposing one of Australia’s most popular political policies has never been the ideal path back to the leadership of a national political party; and the move also allowed Abbott to give Turnbull something active to do, rather than sitting on the back bench fomenting rebellion as ousted Labor leader Kevin Rudd was able to do so successfully.

However, Turnbull’s fraught relationship with the technology sector is clearly not solely due to the macro dynamics of the situation. It has become clear over the past several years that it’s not the fact that Turnbull has opposed Labor’s NBN project that has so annoyed Australia’s cadre of technologists; but how he has done so.

Looking back over Turnbull’s tenure in the portfolio, perhaps the first real crux point which flagged how he would proceed in opposing the NBN came in late December 2010, several months after he took up the portfolio.

The date was New Year’s Eve, and most Australians had thrown aside their work and were preparing to take part in the largest party in Sydney every year. With his high-level connections and profile, Turnbull could get into virtually any gathering in the nation, and probably should have been doing so; or at least preparing to enjoy a quiet evening at home with the family; the fireworks visible, no doubt, from his palatial eastern suburbs abode. However, that afternoon Turnbull had thrown convention on its head and was still working.

The Liberal MP’s outrage on the day was palpable at what many had assumed to be a series of dubious stories published primarily by News Limited about the remote possibility of NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley being involved in a series of corruption scandals in the central American country of Costa Rica half a decade ago, relating to Quigley’s former employer Alcatel-Lucent, a key supplier to NBN Co. At the time and since, there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Quigley’s part; his only involvement was a vague dotted line of high-level oversight responsibility to Alcatel-Lucent’s in-country division, given his oversight responsibility for the North American continent for the vendor.

However, Turnbull turned what was a series of baseless accusations into a national scandal. Quigley and his second in charge, Jean-Pascal Beaufret, “must explain how they could serve in such senior positions and be unaware of millions of dollars of bribes flowing to government officials in Costa Rica, Honduras, Taiwan and Malaysia to secure sales of Alcatel equipment,” thundered Turnbull in a media release. “They must also outline what financial controls are in place at NBN Co to ensure malpractice cannot be overlooked by senior management, as their denials of any knowledge of the bribery schemes suggest it was at Alcatel.”

Over the succeeding months, despite a growing body of evidence that Quigley was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, Turnbull turned up the heat dramatically on the executive, culminating in one of the most extraordinary parliamentary committee confrontations in recent memory, with the Member for Wentworth roasting a bewildered Quigley over hot coals over the issue in May.

An article your writer penned at the time regarding Turnbull’s extraordinary and baseless attack on Quigley generated an outpouring of emotion from the technology sector, outraged that one of its most high-profile success stories had suffered such treatment at Turnbull’s hands.

“I like Malcolm Turnbull, although I disagree quite strongly with his broadband policies. But the veiled attack he has been party to over the last few days is quite disgusting. Casting aspersions on the character of Mr Quigley in the name of a political agenda is something I had though was beneath him. He should be ashamed of himself,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter at the time. Turnbull’s vicious and sustained jabs at Quigley spurred claims the Liberal MP was on a “witch-hunt” of the kind favoured by Communist hunter and US Senator Joe McCarthy decades ago.

Although none of the allegations against Quigley ever came to anything, Turnbull never apologised to the NBN Co executive for his furious personality attack at the time. And in fact, the episode came to constitute an emerging pattern of behaviour from the Member for Wentworth in dealing with Quigley. In September 2012, Turnbull told a community meeting in the Sydney suburb of Epping that he did not believe Quigley had been “the right choice” to lead NBN Co. It was an opinion that Turnbull was later to repeat publicly. And when Quigley retired last week, Turnbull found it impossible, during media interviews on the subject, to find anything positive at all to say about the executive, despite his hard work in getting NBN Co off the ground and the respect in which Quigley continues to be held by the rest of the technology sector. His erroneous claim that Quigley was “fired” garnered Turnbull derision from tech sector workers around Australia.

Turnbull’s vicious attacks on the NBN Co executive have also been repeated on other issues with respect to the NBN and the telecommunications portfolio in general.

Despite the fact that much of Australia’s mainstream media has been extremely critical of Labor’s NBN project, Turnbull has repeatedly lashed out at sections of the technology media particularly, for what he has seen as biased pro-NBN coverage. In July 2012 the MP accused the ABC of creating “relentless propaganda” to support the NBN, in November that same year Turnbull slammed what he said was a NBN “cheerleader” media, and in August it was “specialist technology journalists … fanning a pro-NBN zealotry amongst tech-savvy citizens”. The MP’s comments eventually led to questions about whether he was “bullying” journalists.

The Liberal MP has also earned himself a reputation amongst the technology sector for stretching the truth with respect to the NBN. For example, in a wide-ranging interview with conservative radio shockjock Alan Jones in April this year, Turnbull appeared to agree with a number of Jones’ controversial and at times inaccurate views about the NBN. On issues such as the NBN’s finances and their Federal Budget treatment, the technical capabilities of the various fibre and wireless technologies available for the NBN rollout and even the satellite aspects of the NBN, Turnbull has been accused by critics of misleading the Australian public — and many of the criticisms have stood up to independent examination.

What this all adds up is an impression on the part of many in the technology sector that Turnbull has taken a less than ethical approach to opposing the NBN policy; and that the Shadow Communications Minister wants to win the debate at all costs.

The difficulty for Turnbull in this scenario is that he’s been here before. It was, after all, the mid-2009 ‘Ozcar’ debacle involving Treasury official Godwin Grech that led to the significant decline in Turnbull’s popularity as Opposition Leader and the popularity of the Coalition in general, and ultimately to Turnbull’s loss of the Liberal leadership.

Then, as now with his handling of Quigley and other issues involving the NBN, Turnbull attempted to use a relatively small amount of evidence on a certain topic to blow up an issue into a much larger debate than it would organically have been worth; attempting to push through issues into the public perception. Turnbull’s approach, when faced with any challenge, is usually to spend significant time researching it behind the scenes, before massively over-delivering in terms of pushing the issue in public, leveraging his high-level connections and funding to do so.

It must be said that this approach has usually worked for Turnbull in the past. Throughout the 1990’s, Turnbull’s chairmanship of the Australian Republican Movement and his energy in the organisation was one of the key factors which pushed the republican issue into such heights of public debate that it stimulated the unsuccessful 1999 referendum. Similarly, Turnbull’s energy and sheer ability to leverage high-profile connections and intellectual arguments to create and feed media exposure were behind much of his other successes: His formation of successful law firms and investment banks, the growth and sale of OzEmail and ultimately his epic branch-stacking effort which led to him capturing the seat of Wentworth from incumbent Peter King.

However, where Turnbull has been defeated, it has usually because he was trying to push the wrong argument too far, to an audience which was unwilling to hear it.

It went against the grain of the Australian public’s opinion of Turnbull in 2009 to see him trying to bring then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan down through the gutter politics of the Godwin Grech/OzCar affair. Australia wasn’t ready for a republic in 1999, and probably still isn’t, despite the enduring popularity of the idea. Turnbull’s ultimate defeat as Opposition Leader at the hands of Tony Abbott came because the Member for Wentworth was trying to push a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on a Liberal Party which just didn’t want it.

And, of course, when it comes to the NBN debate, Turnbull has usually been arguing against the grain. The MP has brought all of his intellectualism, all of his charisma, all of his energy and all of his debating skills to the table in attempting to convince the Australian public that Labor’s NBN policy is a lemon and that the nation would be better served by using alternate fibre to the node technology. But although the Coalition’s NBN vision has been able to bring some existing Coalition voters back into the fold, Turnbull has been unable to convince the vast majority of Australians that the Coalition’s policy is better than Labor’s.

The particular difficulty Turnbull has faced with Australia’s technology community is that, as a rule, technologists think in black and white. You will rarely find a technologist willing to admit that there isn’t a “best” solution for every situation. Apple fans notoriously believe Windows operating systems are technically inferior; as do Linux users. And Windows users mock the limitations of other platforms. Whether it’s Android versus iOS, Mac OS X versus Windows, Telstra versus Optus, Intel versus AMD, ATI versus NVIDIA or any of the other million debates which the global technical community has on a daily basis, technologists usually pick one side of every debate to the exclusion of all others. Given that modern computing is based entirely on the division between 1’s and 0’s, perhaps the binary nature of the debate isn’t surprising.

When it comes to telecommunications, there isn’t a whole lot of debate. Almost all technologists believe that the long-term future of every modern nation’s telecommunications needs will be best served by universal fibre; and there’s plenty of evidence to back up this close to universally accepted argument.

In the face of this situation, to technologists, Turnbull’s politically motivated argument that FTTN can be deployed faster and cheaper than FTTP comes across as irrational; a denial of obvious technical truths. And as Turnbull has been unable to convince technologists of the strength of his alternative NBN policy, the Liberal MP has become frustrated with his inability to get traction; hence his rants against technical journalists and his biting criticism of that ultimate technologist, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley. In his career, Turnbull has rarely encountered communities he hasn’t been able to eventually win to his side of the argument; but he has failed with Australia’s technology community; because the only benchmark that community will accept is the quality of the technology put forward as a solution. Rhetoric, after all, is usually irrelevant to technical outcomes.

The fraught nature of this relationship is evident in the fact that even when Turnbull has backed the right horse — as he did with his concerns about the Government’s data retention and Internet filtering plans — the technology sector has given him little credit.

Going back to this article’s original thesis — the suitability of Turnbull for Australia’s highest office, and the support he has from the Australian public — there is really no evidence that Turnbull has less support from the electorate in general than he had before taking on the role of Shadow Communications Minister. The Liberal MP is as popular as ever with the Australian public; even his opposition to the NBN has not dented the overall numbers.

However, it is also true that Australia’s technology community will never forget Turnbull’s years as Shadow Communications Minister. Despite all of Stephen Conroy’s accomplishments with respect to the NBN in his tenure leading the portfolio for Labor, when the Senator resigned last month from his post, all many Australians remembered about Conroy was his support for the unpopular Internet filter policy.

With Turnbull it will be the same: No matter what Turnbull does from here, whether he languishes in Opposition or wins power with the Coalition in the upcoming Federal Election, whether he eventually becomes Prime Minister or President or pauper, many Australians will never forget his days trying to tear down the NBN. It is now part of the Turnbull brand forever — and a very ignominious part indeed.


    • I’ve heard that comment a lot from technology industry people recently — people have had their opinion about Turnbull ground down to the point where they just don’t trust anything he has to say any more. You only have to look at the response his comments criticising the data retention proposal got. People were even suspicious of him in that context.

  1. Excellent article Renai, very insightful.

    I think my own disappointment in Mr Turnbull can best be summed up in his own words:
    ”I’m not suggesting politicians are innately less
    accurate or truthful than anyone else but rather that the system is not
    constraining – in fact it is all too often rewarding – spin,
    exaggeration, misstatements,” he said. Given the challenges facing the
    world, he said politicians had a responsibility ”to explain the big
    issues of our time”, not dumb them down into soundbites that treated
    people with ”contempt”.

    ”Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever
    for informed and honest debate and yet, with the decline of journalism,
    less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to
    frustrate it. Blatant misrepresentations, exaggerations or outright lies
    in politics should in theory be easily revealed. We don’t simply have a
    financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust.”

    I wouldn’t name Mr Turnbull “idealistic”, I would name him “hypocrite”, and it actually does make me sad that he isn’t the “idealistic” person he wants to be.

    Too often he has resorted to “spin, exaggeration, misstatements” in arguing for his alternate NBN against the current NBN. Arguments that Mr Quigley is somehow corrupt, that the NBN would cost $94 billion and be 4 years late, that Telstra will give him the CAN to use even though that wasn’t the deal done with NBNCo, have all chipped away at the trust ledger.

    If he would like to correct the “deficit of trust”, he needs to live up to the words he delivered at the lecture he gave in Perth, people can respect someone like that…

    • Cheers, much appreciated!

      +100 to your comments about Turnbull.

      I find it really hard to understand how Turnbull cannot see the hypocrisy inherent in what he said at that lecture and his actions beforehand and since.

      The most frustrating thing for me about the man is that he truly is one of the only politicians with vision. He’s one of the only politicians around who will avoid responding to an issue immediately, but will go back to the books and experts and research it correctly. But then, so often, he will abandon that approach and shoot from the hip, or, when someone like Quigley gets in his way, he tries to blast them aside, overpower them.

      Personally I think that’s why he had such a huge issue with Quigley. Quigley was so focused on truth and doing the right thing, and he just refused to be beaten down by Turnbull. Quigley always plays the ball and not the man. Yet Turnbull couldn’t see that he was embarassing himself by targeting Quigley so heavily. It’s almost like Turnbull has a blind spot — that, because he’s been so successful in the past, he believes he can sometimes bulldoze things — as they say, crash or crash through. Unfortunately, every so often he comes up against an issue like the NBN or a person like Quigley, where Turnbull is fundamentally on the wrong side, and all the bulldozing he is able to do won’t help him. This is when he resorts to the ‘dark side’ of his skillset — and all the “spin, exaggeration, misstatements” come out.

      It’s really quite unfortunate for him. I believe having a bit more patience and awareness of the situation around him would mean that Turnbull would have still been Opposition Leader at the 2010 election — and thus, likely Prime Minister now.

      • it would have been really interesting to see what he thought of the NBN if Tony hadn’t tasked him with it’s destruction, I guess we’ll never really find out now, but I suspect he may have been a lot more bipartisan about it if he had been leader.

        I think you’ve nailed it pretty well!

        • Hehe no worries, cheers :)

          I agree, it would have been fascinating to see what Turnbull organically thought about the NBN. I don’t think he would ever have come up with an all-fibre model himself. It’s too ‘big government’ for a traditional liberal like Turnbull. However, I do think he would have gone a lot further organically than the Coalition’s 2010 policy, which just featured backhaul and rural support, really. I suspect Turnbull personally has HFC cable, so I think he would have focused on that issue a lot more — upgrading and unlocking the networks. And he would have tried to stimulate investment in upgrading the copper from Telstra and perhaps others, I think.

          • “Hi Renai, you may need to capitalise “liberal” there, or seek to use “libertarian” in its place.”

            “Traditional liberal” is my preferred nomenclature for Turnbull ;)

          • Fair enough, though I’d claim that the use of lowercase indicates a progressive rather than a conservative (and Turnbull comes across imho more as a libertarian than as a liberal) ;)

          • “Fair enough, though I’d claim that the use of lowercase indicates a progressive rather than a conservative (and Turnbull comes across imho more as a libertarian than as a liberal) ;)”

            Turnbull is more libertarian than liberal, and more progressive than conservative. Not quite sure I get your point ;)

        • Well, that is a problem in itself. If he does get leadership and believe that the current NBN plan is the better one, he’d have to go about keeping it on the sly. He couldn’t say it, that would show he was a hypocrite. Well he has done that already, but I don’t think he will admit he’s is either wrong or a hypocrite. Stuff around for a year or so and then say it was too much of a mess and too much had been spent that the only option was to complete it?

          • My prediction personally is that Abbott will become PM, fuck it up somewhere in his second term, then Turnbull will step in and gradually morph the NBN into something more like Labor’s FTTP plan. We would likely end up with 9-12 years of Coalition rule under this kind of scenario … Turnbull is *extremely* popular in the electorate.

          • I’d put money on Abbott’s political career being ended by him punching a reporter. Any takers? I want double if it’s a female reporter.

          • Perhaps Abbott’s “no surprises, no excuses” promises will come home to roost before a second term. He has already backtracked on his deficit reduction, debt elimination promises but people had switched off by the final days of the campaign and in the immediate aftermath of an election result.

          • If, as those who appear to know, say the state of the copper network is such that the plans for VDSL prove to be uneconomic, Turnbull could easily pull the tried and tested method of every incoming government and say “the network was in far worse shape than we we led to believe” and do it properly. Since that is what most people want anyway, he would not shed a gram of political skin.

          • I guess the worst case scenario is if it is just in good enough condition to provide FTTN and they go ahead and do it. Then in a few years when greater speeds are needed, they are left no where to go beside scraping the whole thing for FTTH. Of course there will be years of crap as we have seen getting to the point of an NBN rolling out before anything happens.

          • I agree, it would show a massive hypocrisy. But I think the Australian public might be willing to overlook that, given that we would have bi-partisan support for near-universal FTTP :)

      • how can you seriously suggest turnbull is a politican of vision when he has viciously attacked a fttp rollout currently underway and proposes an inferior fttn solution which by it’s nature has a limited lifespan. You’re either a fool or a shill. Seriously wtf

        • Your comment is mildly offensive, but I’ll let it stand for now. It’s worth bearing in mind that not every measure of a politician should be based on the binary measure of whether they support FTTP or FTTN. Turnbull has had a very complex and multi-faceted pre-politics life, as well as a very complex political role. It’s not all about FTTP versus FTTN.

    • How can you seriously suggest turnbull is a politican of vision. He has viciously attacked and wants to halt a fttp rollout currently underway and replace it with a completely inferior fttn solution which has a limited life span. You’re either a fool or a shill. Seriously wtf

      • I think “vision” in this context means he is well aware of the technical superiority of FTTP but is happy to publicly ignore the benefits in his quest to be seen to be a team player. At the same time, he uses this vision to top up his personal fortune by investing in French fibre hoping (and knowing) his fan club won’t notice. It is mainly those in the tech community who are aware of his duplicity.

  2. Something I didn’t put in the article as well — I suspect Turnbull may not be active in the Communications portfolio for much longer. Sure, if Abbott wins, then Turnbull will be Comms Minister. But Rudd has a lot of momentum at the moment. If Rudd holds power in the upcoming election, then I don’t think Turnbull will sign up for another few years as Shadow Communications Minister. He’s been doing it for three years now. That’s a long time in a shadow portfolio.

  3. If it’s a poison chalice, it’s one he has grasped with both hands. It’s absolutely baffling to me why Turnbull has squandered his reputation trying to square his NBN circle; I don’t know a single informed person who agrees with him, but I know a lot of people who are bitterly disappointed with the kind of politician he has become.

    Maybe Turnbull learned the wrong lessons from his defeat by Abbott. He has abandoned his principles and embraced the politics of mindlessly gainsaying anything Labour does regardless of actual merit. Well, this nonsense might play well with the talk radio set but it absolutely turns me off.

    The article raises an excellent point – for most in the tech community, Turnbull is simply wrong. The fact that he won’t admit it, and indeed tries to yell and bully his way to being right, has turned what should be a robust debate into a cartoonish fight between “good” and “evil”. Guess which side is which?

    5 years ago I would have probably been one of those people who, when asked who should be Australia’s first president, would likely have replied “Malcolm Turnbull”. I wouldn’t today, and I think that is a very sad thing. Turnbull shouldn’t just be “ashamed”; he should be thinking about the legacy he wants to leave. “The man who fucked up the NBN” – old Turnbull would never have wanted that. Let’s hope the new one sees sense before it’s too late.

    • +1 with respect to your poison chalice comment.

      To be honest, despite the obviously poisoned nature of the situation Abbott handed him (where there wasn’t much of a win situation no matter what he did), I think Turnbull couldn’t resist getting fully involved in the portfolio. Throughout his career, he has never been able to sit idly by and wait while better things came along. He has always grabbed every opportunity with both hands and gone full throttle. He has too much energy and ambition to wait for the leadership opportunity to come back to him, as it probably would eventually have anyway, given how unpopular Abbott is with the electorate.

      Thus, where other politicians in the shadow comms ministry (think Bruce Billson, for example, or Tony Smith) did virtually nothing in it, Turnbull couldn’t resist his own ego and actually succeeded in coming up with a fairly credible alternative policy to Labor’s FTTP NBN vision. He did this by sheer energy and research, doggedly finding an alternative in the form of FTTN, and appropriating other aspects of Labor’s existing policy such as satellite and wireless for rural areas, as well as using NBN Co itself as a vehicle for the whole thing.

      The problem is, that this policy was just never that great, despite all of his attempts to push it. It’s credible, but FTTN is just not technically as good, or as good in any way for Australia’s long-term future, as FTTP. Australians aren’t stupid, and they realise this. What this means is that although Turnbull has been able to engender a debate about the NBN, all he’s really been able to achieve through all of his efforts is win back some of the Coalition voters who had been attracted to the Labor NBN, but at the cost of completely alienating the whole technology sector, which has always been pretty strongly behind FTTP as the obviously better solution.

      What would I have done, in his place? I would have stuck to holding NBN Co itself to account. God knows the rest of the Shadow Ministry hasn’t done jack in terms of releasing policies over the past several years. Why should Turnbull sacrifice himself to release an alternative NBN policy? If I was him, I would have kept an eye on NBN Co, and whenever it put a foot wrong, as it has, I would have pointed that out politely and asked for answers. I would have done this ethically and respectfully, but firmly. And God knows NBN Co has had enough issues for this approach to have gotten some traction. I would have avoided creating an alternative policy as much as possible, because frankly, no policy is going to be that great when stacked up against Labor’s all-encompassing all-fibre NBN.

      I would have spent the rest of my time, as Rudd did, shoring up support on the Liberal Party back bench, to ensure that when Abbott fell in the polls, as Gillard did, that the party would demand Turnbull back as they demanded Rudd.

      But Turnbull’s energy and ego was probably too large to allow him to take this softly, softly approach … more’s the pity.

      • Would it not have been more cunning for Malcolm to take Tony aside and say: “Tony, technology is not your forte and as inventor of the internet, I can tell you killing the NBN is not a good idea for three reasons:

        (a) frankly it is the best policy, an inspired policy even;
        (b) it is more popular than any of us will ever be; and
        (c) neither I, nor any of our colleagues, will ever be happy in putting our name to destroying an infrastructure project we can actually get the users to pay for at the point of use.

        Get on board and just concentrate on stopping the boats and killing the carbon tax. You will be much better at that and can take all the credit.

          • Now he can concentrate on his special interest. Stopping the boats. Not that he is completely finished with the carbon tax. And, on the hour, he can reminisce about pink batts. All nice simple concepts which don’t involve a keyboard.

        • I don’t think Abbott would ever have accepted this; Abbott’s approach has been to oppose every major policy of the government, purely on principle.

          Secondly, you have to bear in mind the underlying principles of the various parties. The Liberal Party was formed on a principle of small government, among others. It does not believe in spending billions of dollars of government money on projects such as broadband. The FTTP NBN was never going to be a Liberal policy. That’s just political reality. The two major parties have two different belief systems.

          • small govt… except when he’s spending $10b on an environment policy, or $30b on a broadband policy, neither of which he cares about.

            Abbott doesn’t have a rational belief system.. he just seeks power.

    • None of these considerations stopped G W Bush winning the maximum number of terms in office. We don’t know if it worries him he has to keep a low profile now.

  4. Turnbull could easily offered his current plan. The problem is, rather than address concerns with real answers, he either goes on the attack, or talks crap, when faced with the questions.
    Give a price on FoD. Explain better how you intend to get the copper for free and have it remediate. Don’t just leave out the costs and expect people to believe something, well pretty far fetched, that you will get the copper for nothing. Claiming it’s already paid for doesn’t cut it, that’s bull. Don’t call people who believe FTTH is a better long term solution Zealots. Give studies and reports that show FTTN bandwidths aren’t obsolete by 2017-18 as predicted by Google, Cisco, etc. Don’t do what he does now and pretend it will be fine for 20-30 years. Include plans for upgrades if his 25Mb is enough for anyone isn’t in 5 or so years. Don’t treat people who asks these questions like morons. They aren’t. They live and breath technology. If you want to claim “they don’t understand the time value of money”, give them the maths, I assure you they can handle it.

    • +1

      These are all valid questions with respect to the LBN — and you’re right, Turnbull does ridicule people who don’t agree with him. It’s half his problem: Not his actual policy, but how he attacks those who disagree with him.

      His Quigley “fired” comments last week were the perfect example. I pointed out to him on Twitter that he was just plain flat-out wrong, and got re-tweeted dozens upon dozens of times. He refused to back down and went on the attack instead of admitting his error. It’s the arrogance talking. But even a high-ranking politician like Turnbull should be able to admit that he’s wrong sometimes, and respect the expertise of others. Especially in the technical community, where deep domain expertise is everything.

    • Don’t do what he does now and pretend it will be fine for 20-30 years.

      This is one of the biggest flaws in his plan I think, there is no real vision in it for Australia’s future, it just has a “political cop out” feel to it. I’m not sure if Labor used luck or wisdom when the took the Expert panels advice and went with FTTP, but it’s a lot more visionary regardless…

      • Yes, certainly. It’s why I think FTTN is a step that should be skipped. The poster child for FTTN, the UK started rolling it out many years ago, and now are allowing for FoD to extend it’s life to some degree. Since they started early and BT owned the copper, the copper is of a higher grade than here, the population is higher density, the country is broke, it makes sense. For all his cries of cheaper and more than enough, I think he is underestimating, as so many have before, the growth that resource hungry IT is capable of. Then he will have created a money pit, or white elephant as he likes to call the current NBN plan. FTTH will scale to absolutely ridiculous speeds (BTW, I don’t think 1Gb will seem ridiculous in a few years, it is pretty necessary on a home network, copying video data on a 100Mb network is so slow). And 1Gb is just 1st gear for fibre. With FTTN you have a technology that is near its limit, they may get a little more out of it at the current distances, 800m or so. Anything that requires shorter distances that people point to are out, as that would require almost a total rebuild or would just supply the few who were close enough. The area supplied by a node is circular, ideally, so halve the distance, quarter the people. Today, FTTN speeds are enough, will they be when they start rolling, probably, just, by the end of the rollout will they just have to start another rollout of FTTH? There’s the rub, the maths of FTTN being cheaper doesn’t add up without the ridiculously long life times Malcolm is using, 20 plus years, no way. Twenty years ago 14.4Kb was fast and state of the art, what will it be in 20 years? “Show me a app today that needs that sort of bandwidth”, yes there are very few, but it is pretty useless to develop a technology that relies on that doesn’t exist yet. Not a very commercially viable exercise to do so.

        • All very true.

          I think it will be absolutely fascinating to look back in 20 years at the NBN debate, and see what people think of it at that stage, with reference to what happened in between. You’re right — only a decade ago 10Mbps Ethernet was fine for using around the house. Then I think a lot of people realised that they needed 100Mbps, because file sizes and network usage had gotten larger. These days, my home network is all gigabit, and when one of the links in that network is necessarily 100Mbps for some reason (say if a certain device doesn’t support gigabit), then you really notice the difference.

          Of course, the access network for WAN (broadband) has grown its requirements at a much slower rate. But the deployment of national telecommunications infrastructure is also taking place at a much slower rate. It’s not unreasonable at all to assume that in 20 years (maximum!), most people will be using 1Gbps fibre under the NBN. The growth in all forms of data usage is just so extreme, the new applications so constant. I think that’s what people often tend to forget — that the NBN is a project that will take ten years to finish, so we need to look ahead ten years at what demand will be like then to get an idea of what we should be doing now.

          Politicians, of course, tend to think purely on three year cycles … if that ;)

  5. Hmm. I’m liking this ability to upvote and downvote comments in Disqus. Not sure I like the ‘see more’ button on comments however. Wish I could just see the full text of all comments by default. Does anyone know, is there a way to change that by default? I can’t find one in the Disqus admin settings. Hopefully the ‘edit’ button is there for comments anyway, which is one of the most requested features on Delimiter.

    • “Hopefully the ‘edit’ button is there for comments anyway, which is one of the most requested features on Delimiter.”

      It is, thanks :o)

      Edit: Tags still work too 2 thumbs up

  6. With regards to his aspirations to lead the Liberal Party, it’s not going to happen. In the words of a bona-fide Liberal Party member (I have as a customer), Turnbull is too progressive for the conservatives and therefore doesn’t have as much support as Abbott.

    Have a look at the approval rating of Abbott by LNP voters over at What The People Want; they are 75% happy with the current situation; and also, absolutely convinced that the next election is a foregone conclusion. Time will tell.

    • Hmm. You may be right, but the situation is similar as with Gillard and Rudd — Gillard was safe as long as she was doing OK in the polls. But weakness there translated to weakness inside the party; even though many in Labor didn’t want to work with Rudd again.

      I note that the mainstream media has already started agitating for Turnbull to be considered again:

      There is also the fact that Turnbull has spent a great deal of time over the past several years wooing the large number of young Liberal MPs in the party. Abbott has the old guard, but if you examine the media releases of new MPs in Queensland, NSW and other areas where the Libs did well in the 2010 election, you’ll find Turnbull has often been out in their electorates holding joint meetings with their constituencies and supporting them generally.

      I suspect that as time goes on, Turnbull’s star will rise again. He’s not taking as activist a role with it as Rudd, but I think much of the Australian population knows that Abbott has a use-by date, and that Turnbull is the most logical candidate to step in to replace him.

      I would also ask: If not Turnbull, then who could replace Abbott?

      • I think the political capital that the Coalition spent on the whole “Labor’s revolving door” thing makes the situation a bit more difficult for the LNP to switch back to Malcolm. The change from Gillard to Rudd just put everything back the way it should have been for a lot of voters (and probably explains why the polls went almost instantly back to pre-Gillard numbers).

        I think it more likely that Joe Hockey (who is also very well respected within the party) would actually have a shot at it.

  7. For Turnbull himself, the man is probably a great man at what he does, my qualm isn’t with him per-se, he was really just doing the job he was told to do which was to destroy the NBN at all costs.

    Had he tried to go against that, i’m sure Abbott would have removed him from the portfolio quick smart, what he did, and what i am proud of, is that he moved the LNP from a ‘we hate the NBN’ stance to a ‘it isn’t going to go away, what can we do to change it’.

    I would have preferred that he tried to get the LNP onto the side of ‘lets do the labor plan but lets control it better’, but that would have gotten him removed too i would imagine.

    What he did to Mike Quigley about saying how he was fired was not something he should have done, that is completely obvious, and for that i lost a lot more faith in Turnbull himself, but at the end of the day, regardless of who wins the election, we will have an NBN in some form or another.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Turnbull himself sees fibre as being the right way to do it, but he could never openly say that because of what would happen to him inside the ranks of the party.

    • It is pretty extraordinary from one point of view, what Turnbull has been able to accomplish. As you point out, he was given the job of “demolishing” the NBN, but actually the Coalition’s NBN policy as it stands actually contains a fair degree of similarity with Labor’s — especially in rural areas. I think it has Turnbull has done a pretty good job of walking the line about what he has put forward as policy, while not supporting Labor’s policy wholesale. However, of course there has been quite a lot of spite along the way … especially re: Quigley etc.

      “It wouldn’t surprise me if Turnbull himself sees fibre as being the right way to do it, but he could never openly say that because of what would happen to him inside the ranks of the party.”

      I largely agree with this.

  8. The problem is the Turnbull is caught between a leader who demands he say something he clearly doesn’t believe in, and his own understanding of the issue. According to Paul Budde, last year was spent in part educating Turnbull’s people about fibre, resulting in a joint understanding the FTTP was the best solution, and the long term goal for any deployment of the NBN. Then when Turnbull released the policy it was back to the ALP policy of 2007, FTTN, which was blocked by Sol Trujillo and Telstra. Now that the “separation” of Telstra’s whole sale and retail arms has been cemented in the SSU the deployment of FTTN might be easier (but look at the latest report by the ACCC on Telstra’s compliance with the SSU to see that serious problems persist). If, as Thodey said, copper is good for another 100 years, you can expect the cost for taking over the copper to cost a lot more than the 11 Billion already agreed. This will in all likelihood more than eat up any savings by switching to FTTN.
    Look at the article in yesterday’s Fairfax media about Google Fibre in Kansas City to see how fibre rollout can turbo charge the whole economy. Imagine if this was the whole of Australia! American’s I’ve met drool at the thought of 93% fibre!

  9. Turnball is just another dodgy Liberal party member , who speaks with fork tongue . Remember the Utegate ? tried to overthrow the govt. on a dodgy email from Steve Lewis and the daily Terror.

  10. Fourth article. So far four related to politics. Each of these have been great articles but if the next one also has a political bent I think the masthead will have to change to “Still just Australia. Still just technology. Still just Canberra” ;)

    • Very good point! The problem is that most of the hot button issues in Australian technology right now revolve around the NBN, which is a political beast. However, I do have some articles coming up which aren’t about politics ;)

  11. Anyone catch the Lateline interview with Malcolm tonight?

    Malcolm “wriggled” a lot on the NBN board questions…

    I was really hoping TJ would ask MT which LNP members Bespoke has supposed to have approached, so far I’ve seen no one from the LNP step up and say “Yeah, they’ve been harassing/talking to me”, which seems a bit odd, I’d expect the LNP would be more than happy to “out” them on it…is this another “Utegate” type thing?

    • I certainly did.

      I thought he was very, very careful in what he said. I think he has realised that he’s gone too far with the NBN Co board criticism, and that he’s out on a limb. I did like his use of a Francis Urquhart quote … “You might very well think that, Tony, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” — I laughed out loud at that one; it’s from the classic British UK political show House of Cards :) One of my favourite political series.

      I agree that we should hear more about who has actually been approached. Turnbull has made it sound like a huge thing — but it could actually be a lot less serious.

      In any case, I’ll have an in-depth article on the NBN Co board issue on Delimiter 2.0 tomorrow morning (Friday) …

  12. I respect Turnbull’s intellect and capacity to argue his point, but dislike him immensely because this is not some academic debating topic: the NBN is a once in a generation opportunity and he’s pushing the wrong agenda, with potentially disasterous consequences for our future because of the general distaste for anything Labor in the mainstream media.

    I also disagree that the crux of the tech industry disapproval of his policy is simply down to fibre being better than copper – it’s about fibre being necessary and his dishonest appeal that the government can’t afford it when it’s an investment that will be paid for by subscribers and make a profit in the long term.

    Government != private enterprise anyway, and the sooner he stops arguing about what a rational business would do in his situation the better.

  13. All it took was one vote and Malcolm went over to the dark side to survive within the party. Singing from the same song sheet as they say. It was ever thus.

    • Turnbull will never lose Wentworth involuntarily … I think at this point it’s the safest Liberal seat in Australia, and with good reason. And that article smells a bit like sour grapes, if you ask me.

      • He wouldn’t be the first or last pollie to do it, but I think he’s a long way off currently, we’d need to start seeing more of a trend there. Still, that may be something to keep an eye on, that’s how trends start :o)

  14. There’s no room in the Coaltion for anyone with sensible logical views about marriage equality, climate change or infrastructure…

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say that — the Coalition is a broad body. Turnbull, for example, is definitely pro-marriage equality and doing something regarding climate change. However, I take your point in that he is in the minority ;)

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