blog Those of us who’ve been following the NBN debate for a while will remember that it wasn’t always the case that the National Broadband Network Company had been failing to meet its targets. If we go back a few years, there was an incredible sense of optimism about the project. The pitch for the NBN was always an easy one — it was a visionary project to provide a massive broadband service delivery boost to all Australians, stimulating investment in the IT sector and knowledge-based industries along the way, and forever dealing with the vertically integrated nature of Telstra. Of course, the rollout of the NBN has been delayed. As Informa senior analyst Tony Brown argues in the Sydney Morning Herald today (we recommend click here for the full article), it was precisely these delays which opened the door for the Coalition to argue for an alternative model:
“We all know the reasons for the failure to meet that original target … but what if NBN Co. had been able to hit that original plan, where would we be now? We will never know the answer to that question but it seems likely that Turnbull and the Coalition would be in huge trouble on the NBN and would have little choice but to cave in and broadly support the ALP’s version of the network.”
I argued along similar lines in April this year, when I examined the Coalition’s rival policy. At the time, I wrote:
You can argue the reasons for the current situation with the NBN forever — and God knows it’s always going to be a hot issue amongst the Australian public. You can argue that it was reasonable for the rollout of the NBN to be delayed because of NBN Co’s need to achieve a satisfactory outcome from its extremely complex negotiations with Telstra. You can argue that it was reasonable for the NBN to be delayed because the scope of its responsibilities was changed substantially as it took on responsibility for greenfields developments. You can argue that its latest three month rollout delay was reasonable, because it’s only a small, almost expected blip in a ten-year project. You can argue that its ongoing issues with its construction partners should also have been expected in a project of this magnitude. And in fact, I have argued for all of these concept.
However, what you can’t argue with is the fact that the current Labor Federal Government has been in power long enough — almost six years, by the time the September election rolls around — that it should have been able to complete enough work on its NBN project to make it irrevocable at this time.
In Australia’s Federal political system, it can be reasonably predicted that when a new government takes power after a long period in opposition, such as happened when Kevin Rudd took the reins from John Howard in 2007, that that new government will have at least two terms to implement its policies. The Australian electorate is willing to give politicians that chance to show us what they’re made of.
If I can put it this bluntly, Labor has had its chance to demonstrate that it can deliver on national broadband policy, and it has flubbed it. Realistically, if you can’t do more than finish deploying a couple of hundred thousand premises with fibre in six years in office, there is no reason for the electorate to give you another three years to rectify your mistakes.
At the moment, it is looking increasingly like Labor is going to lose the election and that Australia will be facing a Tony Abbott-led Government for at least the next three years, very likely with Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister. I’m on record as strongly supporting Labor’s NBN policy; on every front it’s a better policy than the Coalition’s alternative. However, there is policy and there is delivery, and when it comes to the NBN, at least, most people would have to agree that the very reason we are even debating which policy is better right now is that Labor tragically didn’t take the six years it had to lock in the NBN and make its FTTP model irrevocable.
Perhaps that should be a lesson for other politicians and political parties out there interested in the technology sector: Policy is nice, but delivering on policy is also important. Labor’s NBN is a very good policy. But right now, two terms after Labor took power in 2007, very few of us actually have better broadband as a result of it. The Coalition has taken a giant bet over the past several years opposing the NBN, given how popular the policy is with the electorate. In this portfolio, at least, it looks like that bet has paid off. Of course, one does wonder whether we’ll be having this same national debate all over again in a decade or so … when it becomes apparent that fibre to the node is just not good enough for the long term ;)
Image credit: NBN Co