news Communications Minister Anthony Albanese has rebuffed an open invitation to debate his opposite Malcolm Turnbull in a formal televised election debate at the National Press Club on the topic of the National Broadband Network, stating that he would prefer instead to debate Nationals Leader Warren Truss in the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio.
Last week Albanese, who holds the position of Deputy Prime Minister, as well as ministerial responsibility for the Infrastructure, Transport and Communications portfolios, used Twitter to challenge Turnbull, the long-time Shadow Minister for Communications, to a debate on Channel Nine’s The Today Show on the morning of Friday the 2nd August.
In response, Turnbull challenged Albanese to a nationally televised debate at one of the main forums for such events, the National Press Club in Canberra. The venue was the location for the first debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on Sunday night.
In response, Albanese posted on Twitter that he was “happy” to debate Turnbull again on what he described as Labor’s National Broadband Network policy versus the Coalition’s “fraudband”, but he also noted that Turnbull should talk to Truss, who would be expected to become Deputy Prime Minister under a Coalition Government, about organising a debate on the topic of infrastructure in general.
Turnbull noted on Twitter that he had booked the National Press Club for 14 August — today — for a NBN debate. However, the debate didn’t go ahead, and this afternoon a spokesperson for Turnbull confirmed Albanese had not consented to a National Press Club debate with Turnbull. Turnbull and Albanese did conduct a short debate on the ABC’s Lateline program on Monday night, but the format did not allow either side to make extended statements on their policy in the style of National Press Club debates, with host Emma Alberici asking a series of set questions.
Then-Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith did debate then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on the issue of the NBN during the 2010 Federal Election at the National Press Club, with Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam also participating.
In a press conference in Launceston this afternoon, Albanese was asked about the issue again. “While you’re waiting for your debate with Warren Truss would you bring a bit of razzle dazzle to Launceston and debate Turnbull on the NBN?” a journalist asked.
“Well I’ve already had two debates with Malcolm Turnbull; one on Q and A and one on Lateline on Monday night,” said Albanese, referring to the pair’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program in early July, before the Federal Election was called. “What I’ve tried to do for six years – anywhere, anywhere at all will do – is have a debate with Warren Truss.”
“Well we want Turnbull,” responded the journalist.
“You might want Turnbull, but I’ll give you the big tip,” said Albanese. “Warren Truss is the alternative Deputy Prime Minister of the nation. Warren Truss is the Shadow Infrastructure and Transport Minister. He has shadowed me for six years. For six years he has avoided any debate. Warren Truss does not believe in investment in cities at all. Warren Truss does not believe in investment in rail. Light rail, heavy rail, any of it.”
“Warren Truss was part of a Government that last time they were in office, the first thing they did was cut $2 billion from the roads budget. And what we have from the Opposition is a so-called commission of audit; we know that is really a commission of cuts. Warren Truss, I just want one debate with Warren, happy to keep talking to Malcolm Turnbull, but I want one debate with the alternative Deputy Prime Minister and the alternative Infrastructure and Transport Minister.”
Albanese said the NBN was Australia’s largest infrastructure project, and that he and Truss could debate the NBN and other issues such as roads, rail, ports and various freight strategies. Aviation and shipping could also be discussed.
“We have developed a long term plan for all of those issues,” Albanese said. “Warren Truss has hid from all of those issues. They are trying to pretend that he is not the alternative Deputy Prime Minister.”
“And Malcolm Turnbull, I know he’s very popular because he tells me so. I know he’s very smart because he tells Australians so. And if anyone has a look at Lateline the other night, they will see him lecturing not just myself, but Emma Alberici because he thinks that only he understands. Well when it comes to the NBN, quite frankly Malcolm has got a dud brief. Malcolm, he is too smart to believe that copper is better than fibre in 2013. He believes in his NBN so-called plan, where he was given the job by Tony Abbott to destroy the NBN; that was the task in Tony Abbott’s words that he gave Malcolm Turnbull when he was appointed.”
“Today Malcolm Turnbull is trying to pretend that they’ve got just a slower and inferior system, but I’ve gone through the costings with you. I think Malcolm Turnbull is as fair dinkum in support for his NBN policy as he is when he says he’s opposed to an emissions trading scheme and he supports Tony Abbott’s ridiculous, costly and ineffective so-called Direct Action plan on climate change.”
Truss has emerged as a significant and long-term critic of the NBN project. Back in August 2010, as the cluster of independents were deciding which major party they would partner with to form minority government, Truss heavily criticised the project and supported the Coalition’s more limited broadband policy, which was largely rejected by the telecommunications industry and many ordinary Australians as not being ambitious enough to compete with Labor’s NBN vision.
However, it also appears that Truss is not as confident speaking about the NBN as Turnbull. The Nationals Leader has made several factually incorrect statements about the NBN over the past several years. For example, in May 2012, Truss inaccurately stated that no resident in his electorate would be able to connect to the infrastructure until “at least the latter part of this decade”. And in July that same year, Truss made a number of similarly inaccurate statements about the NBN project and his own party’s rival policies.
Albanese is right to attack Truss — the Nationals Leader, although he may shortly be Deputy Prime Minister of Australia — has been virtually invisible in the Federal Election so far, and the infrastructure area deserves far more attention than it has been getting.
But that doesn’t excuse Albanese from the responsibility of fronting up to debate Turnbull, and possibly Scott Ludlam, at the National Press Club for a nationally televised debate in the communications portfolio. The NBN is widely acknowledged to be a very significant issue in the election, and Albanese is more than competent to debate it with Turnbull. In fact, Albanese should welcome the opportunity. After all, Labor’s NBN policy is a significantly better and more popular policy than the Coalition’s much more limited fibre to the node-based vision. If I was Albanese, I would be lording it all over Turnbull on that issue right now.
It is also incumbent upon Albanese to explain how Labor would, if re-elected, keep the NBN on track. So far the project has repeatedly failed to meet its rollout targets, often for reasons more related to Federal Government policy changes (for example, with relation to greenfields estates, or the ‘outside-in’ rollout model) than NBN Co’s own performance. I think a lot of people would like to see Albanese make some commentary about governance when it comes to NBN Co, and how Labor will run a tight ship and roll out broadband fast.