full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
Image: NBN Co
The National Broadband Network Company’s constant stream of launch events being held around Australia to promote the switch-on of NBN fibre infrastructure is providing the Australian Labor Party with a massively advantageous and uneven platform to promote its broadband policy and very likely breaches the Government’s Caretaker Conventions demanding equal treatment of all sides of politics during an election period.
It’s Tuesday morning in Cairns, and there’s a frission of excitement in the warm air. The weather is spectacular, even in winter, as residents of this spectacular Far North Queensland city have come to expect, but it’s also the political silly season, and even far-flung Cairns is about to be put on the map for all the right reasons.
The epicenter of activity on this beautiful morning is, as is often the case in this coastal city, down at the Pier. Clustered around a very official-looking giant orange button on a podium on the pier itself is a collection of politicians, dressed in their finest, with their hair and make-up set to perfection and preening in front of a media pack. The politicians, practicing their smiles and ready for their image to appear on tonight’s television screens and in tomorrow’s newspapers, resemble nothing so much as a set of vivid tropical birds, while the media pack grins like Queensland’s famous crocodiles, their teeth showing at the prospect of catching a high-profile figure making a verbal misstep at a glitzy launch in a Federal Election campaign.
At the podium stand five figures. There’s Cairns councillor Richie Bates, Federal Minister for Regional Communications Sharon Bird, Federal Minister for Human Services Jan McLucas, and Billy Gordon, the Labor candidate for the Far North Queensland seat of Leichardt. All are members of the Australian Labor Party. Next to them is Tourism North Queensland director of business events, Rosie Douglas. The writer of this article wasn’t there, but we can imagine that as the five overlaid their hands jointly on the button and pushed it staunchly down, a round of applause went up and some sort of multimedia display was aired. The jubilation at the event would have been apparent to all.
The night before, Bird and Gordon held an information session on the National Broadband Network at the Cairns City Library. And on the morning of the Cairns switch-on event for NBN infrastructure around the city, both Bird and Gordon issue media releases celebrating the launch.
“Residents and businesses in Cairns can now access NBN fibre for the first time,” enthused Bird in the Minister’s release. “Cairns residents can now sign up for the NBN, joining thousands of people around Australia who are already paying less, or about the same, as they were for their internet access, but finding that the NBN provides a much better experience. Labor’s NBN will turbo charge health, education and business in Cairns, now and for decades into the future. The NBN is great news for businesses and non-for-profit organisations in Cairns and across Australia,” said Minister Bird.”
For his part, Gordon attacked what he said was the Coalition’s inferior NBN policy. “Tony Abbott’s ‘fraudband’ plan will see Cairns homes and businesses charged up to $5,000 if they want to get connected to fibre, creating a digital divide,” said Gordon. “Federal Labor’s NBN will create new opportunities and open up new markets, and that is exactly what we need to keep the economy in Cairns strong.”
The launch event was only one of several to be held across the State of Queensland this week and last. Yesterday Bird and McLucas continued her campaign in the state to Mackay, where the Ministers pressed yet another giant orange button with the local Labor candidate for the seat of Dawson, Bronwyn Taha, and issued yet another celebratory media release. Last week it was Communications Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Townsville to launch new NBN premises, and Goodna also got its own launch event a day earlier, attended by Minister Assisting for the Digital Economy, Kate Lundy. The Labor Member for Oxley, Bernie Ripoll, was in attendance with Lyndy at the launch. The New South Wales city of Newcastle was also on the list last week, with a visit by Albanese, and a variety of other locations are planned for the weeks ahead.
In fact, your writer just received another media release this morning regarding Richmond and Windsor, in Western Sydney, being switched on. The launch featured Albanese and Labor candidate for Macquarie Susan Templeman. That makes four NBN Co launches this week.
Almost all of the media coverage of the NBN launch emphasised two key aspects of the launches. Firstly, they heavily featured the attendance of the Federal Labor heavyweight politicians, as well as mentioning the names of all of Labor’s local MPs and candidates in the area, who will be running for local seats in the upcoming Federal Election in three weeks on 7 September. Secondly, the tone of the articles was very positive, discussing the benefits of high-speed broadband which the NBN rollouts will bring to local residents and businesses. It was common, for example, for subsidiary articles to be published featuring interviews with local residents who had been amongst the first to connect to the NBN in their region.
There were just two small little things missing from most of the coverage of the NBN launch events.
Firstly, although the launch events were ostensibly organised, hosted by and run by the National Broadband Network Company, NBN Co itself received very little mention in the media coverage of the events. NBN Co issued its own string of media releases associated with the events, but it was the Labor politicians that the events focused almost exclusively on, along with some sideline commentary by independent experts such as Sandra Harding, the vice chancellor of James Cook University, or Tourism North Queensland’s Douglas, who had had their statements included in NBN Co’s media releases.
Where photos of the launch events were published, they almost universally photos of Labor Ministers, MPs and candidates, smiling as they pushed an NBN Co-branded big orange button. NBN Co’s executives did not appear in much of the footage stemming from the events, and in general it was politicians from the Australian Labor Party who had their statements repeated in the media, not NBN Co’s spokespeople. The one exception to this rule was the ABC, whose reporters tended to prefer to focus on NBN Co spokespeople, instead of Labor politicians.
Secondly, the coverage almost universally neglected to mention any aspect of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy, focusing almost exclusively on Labor’s NBN policy. There was no mention of the common elements of the two policies (they will both use the same satellite and wireless services in remote areas), despite the fact that many of the NBN launches over the past several weeks have been held in rural parts of Australia. There was also no mention that the Coalition’s policy also features the upgrade of Telstra’s copper network with fibre (albeit, not all the way to the premises as under Labor).
And there was certainly no mention of the principal, and often very salient Coalition criticisms of Labor’s NBN project — that it’s running late, that it will take a decade to deliver, that it significantly winds back infrastructure-based telecommunications competition in Australia, and that it will be overly expensive.
In short, if you were residents of Mackay, Cairns, Townsville, Goodna, or Newcastle, you probably thought that the NBN switch-on events held in those cities over the past several weeks have been purely a part of the Federal Election campaign: Labor events, organised and held by the Australian Labor Party, organised to coincide with the pitches local candidates and members are making to be elected to Federal Parliament for the next three years. That was the over-riding impression generated by the events.
As a technology journalist, I can tell you that my email inbox has been flooded over the past several weeks with Labor propaganda about these events. A dozen media releases, photos, quotes, basically everything but the kitchen sink.
The only problem is, these NBN launch events were very definitely not Labor-organised events, and they’re not supposed to be associated with the Federal Election campaign. They were events organised independently by the National Broadband Network Company, centrally from its headquarters in Sydney.
Historically, it’s absolutely nothing new for NBN Co to hold launch events. The first such event was held in Tasmania in August 2010 (see the picture above). At the event, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and then-Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett, all members of the Australian Labor Party, fronted up to press a giant button to formally launch the first tranche of NBN infrastructure in the state. The first customers in the Tasmanian towns of Scottsdale, Smithton and Midway Point were already receiving services, having been switched on several weeks previously, but the launch was still important, garnering national attention and proving that Labor’s NBN project was actually delivering some infrastructure in the real world.
Since then, it has become a custom at NBN Co to organise launch events in local communities when new batches of NBN infrastructure goes live. The company likes to hold such an event when a new fibre serving area module (FSAM) goes live, allowing hundreds of new fibre customers access to next-generation telecommunications infrastructure.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with these launch events. They provide both celebratory and informative functions to the communities they take place in, and all the hullaballoo helps to educate locals that something major is going on in their area; that a big deal is being made because something big is happening. The media loves this kind of local development good news story, the politicians love it because it’s a chance to show off their accomplishments, and even residents and businesses like such events because they bring attention to their locality.
Then too, although such events obviously promote a Labor project, NBN Co itself has taken elementary steps over the past several years to keep the other side of politics happy. Whenever the company organises a launch event, it also invites politicians from other parties than Labor. Such requests, in terms of the Opposition, are usually centrally coordinated on the Coalition’s side of the fence through the Office of Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which will decide if it wants to dispatch a local Coalition MP to the festivities. Of course, this rarely happens. There’s not much point in a Coalition naysayer turning up to an event which is all about celebrating a Labor project.
However, during the last several weeks of the Federal Election campaign, and even in the weeks leading up to it, NBN Co’s launch events have become almost completely suborned for election purposes. For all intents and purposes, and despite NBN Co’s own best intentions, these are no longer informational events held by NBN Co to educate the local population about the launch of high-speed broadband in their area. Instead, they have become vehicles for Labor propaganda during a tense election campaign.
The location of NBN Co’s launches during the election campaign is also highly convenient for Labor.
If you speak to NBN Co’s spokespeople, they will argue that there is nothing suspicious about the fact that the company has focused on Queensland with its NBN launches over last week and this week. After all, they will argue, it should be obvious that the company will launch its network build in the areas where it is completed, in the order that they are completed. Some regions of Queensland, including Townsville and Mackay, were amongst the first areas on the mainland where NBN construction was started. The fact that those areas are being switched on just as a Federal Election campaign is being held is merely coincidental — an election campaign could have been held at any time, and especially so, given the instability of the minority Government in Canberra over the past three years.
However, it should also be obvious how advantageous to Labor NBN Co’s launches are in the state. To carry this election, Kevin Rudd’s team will need to win back seats in key battleground states such as Queensland and New South Wales, where problems with Labor state governments have resulted in a massive wave of unpopularity for Labor in general. The fact that NBN Co has focused its NBN launches on Queensland in the first several weeks of the Federal Election campaign seems more than suspicious — to a cynical observer, it seems designed to prop up Labor’s chances in the state.
And it’s not just the launches which Labor is taking credit for. This week, Bird “officially launched” new higher speed wireless services on NBN Co’s network at speeds of up to 25Mbps. The only problem? NBN Co actually already launched those services back in June. Kate Lundy and Ed Husic have been touring locations in Sydney announcing new NBN training kits to support businesses connecting to the NBN. The only problem? We already knew about those kits — the funding for them was announced in the budget months ago. These are not “new” announcements. They are old announcements warmed over again for the election.
So do NBN Co’s launches breach the Caretaker Conventions (PDF), which NBN Co is subject to, and which provide solid guidelines about how government departments operate during election periods? A close reading of the Caretaker Conventions, available online, would suggest that they do. The Caretaker Conventions, according to the document, aim to establish practices:
“… directed at protecting the apolitical nature of the public service and avoiding the use of Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party. The conventions and practices also aim to prevent controversies about the role of the public service distracting attention from the substantive issues in the election campaign.”
Section 6 of the Caretaker Conventions deals with what it describes as ‘advertising and information campaigns’. The document states that all advertising campaigns — which NBN Co is engaged in at the moment, as part of its information campaign to inform residents in affected areas about the NBN — that highlight the role of particular ministers or address issues that are a matter of contention between the parties are “normally discontinued”, while campaigns that are of an “operational nature”, such as defence force recruiting campaigns or public health campaigns, usually continue. The Caretaker Conventions document states:
“Agencies should avoid active distribution of material during the caretaker period if it promotes Government policies or emphasises the achievements of the Government or a Minister. Passive distribution of material, such as continued placement in the agency’s offices or distribution in response to requests, is acceptable.”
Similar rules apply to the use of government websites (such as NBN Co’s own) for promoting specific policies or ministers, and there is also a stipulation about the use of agency premises by political parties. The caretaker conventions state:
“While there should be no difficulty with the responsible use, by all parties campaigning in an election, of agency premises that are normally open to the public, it is most important during an election campaign that public servants not become caught up with party political activity. For that reason, it is not appropriate that use of premises extend to such activities as engaging public servants in political dialogue or using public servants for logistical support for political functions. Nor, of course, should use of premises unreasonably disrupt the normal operations of the offices concerned.”
And there are also rules about how government officials should themselves explain or promote policies during the caretaker period:
“Officials need to exercise judgment if they are scheduled to speak at public functions during the caretaker period. In the case of controversial issues, officials should decline invitations to speak. In the case of non-controversial issues, officials may speak, but should explain that the Government is in caretaker mode and that they will limit their statements to factual issues and matters of administration. Officials should avoid publicly explaining or promoting policies during the caretaker period.”
Now, there is an argument to be made, and you’ll get this argument made to you if you speak to NBN Co about its launches during the election campaign, that NBN Co’s launches are of an “operational nature” — that are are purely aimed at informing the public about the availability of new infrastructure in their area, and that the launches do not constitute support for any particular political party — especially given the fact that NBN Co has made a habit of inviting the Opposition to its launches, in an attempt to provide balance.
However, if you examine the actual impact of NBN Co’s launches, you can see that what is happening in reality is that the events have become a very solid and substantial part of Labor’s Federal Election campaign cycle, and are being used as propaganda vehicles for Labor’s view that its National Broadband Network policy is fundamentally better than the Coalition’s. There is really no objectivity, independence or balance at all to the launch events which NBN Co is organising around the country right now. They may be organised by the company, but their substance, and the way they are being conducted, is extremely favourable to Labor.
Labor is clearly using NBN Co’s launches as a vehicle to promote its own policies. And that is just as clearly a breach of the Caretaker Conventions.
So what could be done to resolve the situation? From this writer’s point of view, the solution is very easy: NBN Co should continue informing the Australian population when it switches on new NBN infrastructure in their area. It should continue distributing information and paying for advertisements about that issue. It should even continue holding launches to highlight the switching on of that new infrastructure. All of that activity is clearly beneficial for the community, and it’s clearly part of NBN Co’s operational remit to conduct such activities, election period or not.
However, what NBN Co should also do is stop allowing Labor to use those launches as its own propaganda platform. The company should inform the Australian Labor Party, the Coalition and every other political party that for the period of the election campaign, no political party or politician will be allowed to speak at its launch events, nor will they be featured in promotional material around such events. NBN Co should do everything in its power to ensure that events are about NBN Co specifically — and not about the Australian Labor Party, Labor Ministers, Labor MPs, Labor candidates or Labor policies.
If NBN Co doesn’t take this step, it risks being seen as partisan and directly involved in the political process.
The underlying truth, of course, is that the organisation was initially created by Labor as the visible enactment of its NBN policy, and I’m sure most NBN Co staff are personally broadly in favour of Labor being re-elected so that the company can continue on its mission of rolling out fibre to most Australian premises. Most NBN Co staff, I am sure, don’t want the Coalition to take power and force NBN Co to radically reshape its network rollout. That kind of political disruption is anathema to the predominantly technical staff which NBN Co employs.
There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just rational behaviour. But the company also needs to realise that is beholden to the Government of the day. And, if it is to have any respect as a government business enterprise in future, it needs to learn the lesson which countless departments, agencies and GBEs have learnt before it — it needs to stay completely independent from the political process during election periods. The alternative is that it it will be seen as having no independence at all.