full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
24 October 2013
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull
To a Federal Labor Party exhausted from several bitter years of internal struggle and a vicious election campaign, it must seem like slipping into Opposition might be a good chance for a hard-earned rest. But the truth is that the long fight to keep one of its key policies intact has just begun. Here’s some ideas for how Labor can take on Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the National Broadband Network issue — and win.
Over the past week, a number of industry insiders have asked me a similar question: With the Coalition set to enjoy at least three years ahead in power (probably six), and Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to reshape the National Broadband Network along less ambitious lines already taking shape, what strategy should the Australian Labor Party pursue, if it wants to push its own Fibre to the Premises-based NBN agenda, as well as holding the new Liberal Communications Minister to account?
The issue is a particularly timely one for Labor, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the Federal branch of the party is considering it internally right now. Your writer expects that new Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare and his deputy Michelle Rowland have been locked in a room for several days now nutting out the issues.
After all, with a new Opposition Leader appointed and a new Shadow Cabinet on board for a week now, Labor’s grace period after the Federal Election in September is now clearly over. It’s time the politicking began again — with a fresh set of faces, a fresh set of ideas, and a new approach that will draw the covers over Labor’s recently divided past and set chart for new horizons. Labor’s been relatively silent about the Coalition’s rather obvious early blunders in Government over the past month, while it got its own house in order. But now it’s time for Labor to get its game face on.
In addition, let’s not kid ourselves: We’re not just talking politics here. The NBN is an issue beyond politics. As Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project and the platform on which the entire next 50 to 100 years of our burgeoning digital economy will be built, there is no more important project for the nation to focus on. Forget stopping the boats, forget the carbon tax, and certainly forget the debt ceiling. When it comes to Australia’s future, the rollout of the NBN will be critical.
Many political issues, taken out of their political context, are not inherently very important to the health of the wider Australian society. But the NBN is.
So what should Labor do? How can it best push its own NBN policy agenda? To my mind, there are really three tactics which the new Opposition should be focusing on in the next several years: Firstly, it should stay the course on its existing Fibre to the Premises-based NBN policy. No policy reworking required. Secondly, it should get on board with the growing popular movement for an all-fibre NBN. And lastly, it should let Turnbull’s inherent faults shine.
The NBN has taken a lot of flak recently. Between the lengthy time period required to negotiate access to Telstra’s network, dangerous asbestos issues in Telstra’s pits and pipes and the (let’s be honest) sheer incompetency of the bevy of construction firms contracted to deploy the NBN, the poor management of the NBN rollout so far has become blindingly apparent over the past several months. In some states, the deployment of the infrastructure has slowed to a crawl, and in others it has descended into a farce, with NBN Co claiming vast numbers of premises as being able to connect to its fibre … despite the fact that they actually can’t.
Hell, even former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, the ‘father of the NBN’ and the project’s founder, has admitted the private contractor model which NBN Co attempted to use in its rollout just didn’t work.
However, none of this means that Labor’s FTTP-based NBN policy was the wrong policy. It’s not. What we’re seeing here is a failure to execute that policy, not a failure of the underlying policy itself. With a few necessary speed tweaks — such as the involvement of Telstra in the NBN rollout process and the embracement of Fibre to the Basement options for multi-dwelling units — Labor’s predominantly FTTP-based NBN policy is still the best telecommunications policy out there.
For those inside Labor that are doubting the fundamental nature of Labor’s NBN policy, here’s a reminder. I wrote this in April this year, as the Coalition’s watered down rival policy was released:
Fundamentally, it’s a worse policy than Labor’s. Its critics are right; it betrays a tragic loss of long-term vision for Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure. Fibre to the node is a dead-end technology which will, in several decades, be already fading into memory. By investing in fibre to the node, the Coalition isn’t skating to where the puck is going to be, nor even where it is now. It is looking backwards, not forwards, and by doing so it is throwing away the opportunity for Australia’s economy to transition from digging things up out of the ground to a more sustainable knowledge-based export economy — you know, the kind of economy which countries such as Germany and Japan already have.
On almost any measure, Labor’s policy is a better one than the Coalition’s. It has technical, economic, financial and industry structure advantages, to say nothing of the end benefit to Australian residents and businesses. It’s a winner and I prefer it vastly over the Coalition’s much more modest vision.
Even if the Coalition is right, and it can deploy a national FTTN network much quicker than it could deploy a similar FTTP network, and even if that network could be deployed at a substantial discount to FTTP, that doesn’t mean we should do it. It is more than blindingly apparent to telecommunications experts the world around that over the long-term, the future of all fixed telecommunications networks is trending towards ubiquitous fibre. Not HFC cable. Not FTTN. Not even FTTB. Fibre all the way to each premises.
If Australia doesn’t upgrade Telstra’s copper network to fibre in the short to medium term, it will be forced to in the long term anyway. The lessons coming out of northern European and Asian countries — or, hell, even New Zealand — about the advantages of fibre are impossible to deny. There will come a point over the next several decades where 100Mbps broadband speeds are just not good enough to keep up with societal and business demand, and there’s even a very strong argument that it will actually be constraints on upload speeds which will be the real killer before that point.
And this isn’t even getting into the other advantages Labor’s NBN policy delivers. An all-fibre NBN delivered by a pure wholesaler like NBN Co also has the effect of structurally separating Telstra and removing its inherent internal conflicts of interest — an issue which has long bedevilled Australia’s telco sector. It will bring equality of access to the bush and stimulate the economies of rural areas such as Tasmania. It will also deliver fundamental improvements in areas such as health, education and entertainment. Most of these benefits will be watered down or even lost altogether if an all-fibre NBN policy is not pursued.
In the long-term, continuing to support an all-fibre NBN also makes a lot of sense. Even if the Coalition is able to successfully deliver on its preferred FTTN rollout through 2019, at that point there is still going to be an argument that upgrading the FTTN infrastructure to FTTP is worthwhile. Labor’s very long-term support for a FTTP NBN will aid it on these time frames.
Politics is, of course, often about politics. But it’s also about policy, and a change of government always spurs a re-examination of each major party’s current policies. When Labor does examine its NBN policy, what I strongly suspect it will find is that the policy itself is sound and the right long-term vision for Australian telecommunications. Clearly, the execution of that policy has been lacking. But that does not mean the policy as a whole should be abandoned. If you’re stuck in Opposition for three years, you might as well be on the right side of history.
What’s more, most Australians are clearly aware of this fact, and this brings this article to its second point.
If there is one thing we can all agree on when it comes to the NBN, it’s that Labor in power did a terrible job of selling the future benefits of the project. Due to the poor execution of the project, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and other senior Labor figures were constantly placed in a position where they were promising the Australian electorate better broadband, without actually delivering.
And yet, somehow, Australians still fundamentally believe in the promise of an all-fibre NBN.
Despite the best efforts of that champion of charisma, Malcolm Turnbull, and despite Labor’s blunder, poll after poll over the past 2-3 years has consistently shown that Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of Labor’s FTTP-based NBN policy and want to see it enacted. The release of the Coalition’s rival policy in April barely moved the needle on this support, and then only among Coalition voters.
Now, it’s true that that same electorate did vote Labor out of power. But if you examine actual voting patterns and the rapidly growing popular movement supporting Labor’s NBN since the election, as evidenced through several crowd funding campaigns, Australia’s largest ever online petition and online comments in general, what becomes apparent is that Australians voted the Coalition out for reasons which had little to do with the NBN. Australia might have picked a Coalition Government in the September election, but it also picked, and continues to pick, Labor’s NBN policy. The situation is not the black and white dichotomy which Turnbull has painted it as — and activism for an all-fibre NBN is growing every day.
The ineptitude of the Australian Labor Party is that so far, it has completely failed to take advantage of this massive level of community activism and support for one of its own policies.
If I was a Labor Shadow Communications Minister like Jason Clare, a deputy Minister like Michelle Rowland, or even a NBN-interested backbencher like Ed Husic or Kate Lundy, I’d be in constant contact with the leaders of this pro-NBN movement. I’d be supporting the movement every way possible. Funding it. Wining and dining its leaders. Issuing joint press releases. Helping to organise online and possibly offline, protests. Re-tweeting every goddamn thing this movement does.
Consider, for a second, the absurdity of the current situation. The pro-NBN movement is so strong that it just raised $60,000 in a matter of days to place full-page ads spruiking Labor’s own NBN policy in a local newspaper in Turnbull’s electorate. It’s also developing a strategy to do the same in marginal electorates held by Coalition MPs.
And yet, Labor so far hasn’t given the movement an ounce of attention. The truth is that the pro-NBN activist movement is doing more to generate popular support for Labor’s NBN policy than Labor is. I’d find that hilarious if the stakes weren’t high enough to make the situation tragic.
Labor Shadow Ministers like Clare and Rowland, as well as backbenchers such as Husic and Lundy, should be picking up this incredibly powerful tool and using it to push Labor’s FTTP NBN policy as well as to oppose the Coalition’s plan to water down that policy. We’re talking here about an incredibly powerful level of organic, grassroots support for a Labor policy. Labor should be jumping into bed with that movement wholesale. It’s a natural fit.
I would even advise, given the importance of the NBN project, that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who I don’t think I’ve ever heard mention the words “National Broadband Network”, make connecting with this movement a huge priority. NBN policy represents a huge point of difference between Coalition and Labor sides of politics which usually appear to be very similar.
And then there’s the direct question of how to deal with Turnbull.
Now, there’s no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull is an intimidating figure. From journalism to law to business and investment banking, the Member for Wentworth has had many careers over the past several decades, all of them successful, and all of which have proven useful as background history for his current focus in politics. Going up against Turnbull means going up against one of Australia’s most media-savvy politicians, a charismatic individual with a solid sense of humour and a nose for a good line of argument, an intellectual who draws expertise from all around the world and parlays that into populist debates.
But more than that, if you follow Turnbull’s media commitments, as I do, you’ll also quickly realise that the Duke of Double Bay is a relentless self-publiciser. Even in Opposition, and even going up against Labor’s very popular NBN policy, it was common for Turnbull to have one major media commitment every day. If he wasn’t on radio, he was on television. If he wasn’t on television, he’d have a major interview or opinion piece in a newspaper or magazine. And if he wasn’t doing that, Turnbull was using social media to argue with online journalists or bloggers about NBN issues. The man is a machine — no doubt about that.
However, what Labor needs to realise about Turnbull is that most of Turnbull’s strengths can also be weaknesses, to be easily exploited.
Because of his varied background and his personal charisma, when Turnbull needs industry expertise, he tends to turn to personal connections who he has worked with in the past to get a job done, regardless of the fact that they may not be the best person for that role. You can see this in the way that Turnbull has appointed a clutch of ex-Telstra executives (Ziggy Switkowski, JB Rousselot and Justin Milne) to reform NBN Co, despite the fact that the trio actually have very little experience in rolling out network infrastructure, and may even have significant conflicts of interest.
Because of his aristocratic background and history leading Australia in fields such as business and politics, Turnbull tends to react negatively when grassroots activist movements such as the pro-NBN community criticises him. You can see this in the Member for Wentworth’s casual dismissal of the record-breaking pro-FTTP NBN petition on change.org, or in the contemptuous way he has treated various journalists over the past several years who have challenged his anti-FTTP views.
And, because of the large number of his media commitments, Turnbull has a tendency to misspeak as he attempts to take slightly different messages to different audiences. You can see this in the way the MP attempted to mislead Lateline’s audience during the election campaign on the issue of gigabit fibre connections, or the way that he tends to support factually inaccurate statements made by shock jock radio hosts such as Alan Jones.
Underlying all of this is a colossal sense of hubris around Turnbull personally, stemming from his personal arrogance. For all his intellectualism, energy and charisma, Turnbull is, at the heart, an impatient individual who desires positive change in society. That’s fine — but politics is a game of careful, methodical patience coupled with brief bursts of charisma. Turnbull sometimes tries too had to speed things up or to force the hand of progress — and trips himself up along the way. It’s why he’s not Prime Minister right now — despite the fact that he enjoys significantly higher levels of popular support than Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s arrogance has left him with lesser support among his parliamentary colleagues.
To take advantage of this hubris, all a canny Labor MP needs do is wait for Turnbull to screw up, as he does every month or so, and then mildly point out those mistakes in a condescending manner. Mocking Turnbull is the quickest way to get a response from the Member for Wentworth; he usually bites back quickly and harshly, exposing his own weaknesses and potentially spurring further mistakes.
Turnbull is most dangerous as a politician when he is given enough time to make considered decisions and plan strategy. By mocking his mistakes, a Labor MP would be able to tap into popular support for politicians of good humour, as well as puncturing Turnbull’s own ego. The minute you take Turnbull seriously, is the minute you start to lose. In his short-lived, pre-election career as Communications Minister, Anthony Albanese started to take advantage of this weakness, but his predecessor Stephen Conroy was always too serious and heavy-handed to do the same.
To be honest, if I read back over this article, it doesn’t sound like I’m suggesting much. Labor should maintain its current FTTP NBN policy, with a few pragmatic tweaks. It should tap into the huge energy of the organic grassroots support for that policy. And it should let Turnbull make his inevitable mistakes, provoking emotional reactions through satire and humour when the Liberal MP’s ego, as it inevitably does, leads him into arrogance.
The irony is also that it was precisely these strategies that Turnbull employed in Opposition. The MP’s constant attempts at community-building online, his focus on policy development, and his charisma and humour were all elements Turnbull employed when waging his war against Labor’s FTTP NBN over the past three years.
Of course, the facts remain that as things stand, Labor isn’t following any of these tactics, right now. It’s not engaged in a debate with the Coalition supporting its own FTTP policy, even as the Coalition attempts to dismantle it. It has completely ignored the popular movement in support of that policy. And it’s also completely ignoring the blatant mistakes Turnbull is making in the Communications portfolio — mistakes sourced from Turnbull’s own weaknesses. This causes a problem for journalists attempting to hold a sitting Government to account. Because a weak Opposition also weakens the ability of the media to curb Government excess and right its mistakes.
Let’s hope Jason Clare, Michelle Rowland and the pair’s colleagues can get their act into gear soon. Because, as Australia learnt during the years under John Howard, an ineffective Opposition might as well be no Opposition at all.