When will Labor get serious about supporting its NBN policy?


opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
27 November 2013
Image credit: Paul Fleetwood
(from NBN Defender Facebook site)

The independent pro-fibre National Broadband Network movement is doing a far better job of promoting Labor’s Fibre to the Premises-based NBN policy than Labor itself. When is Labor going to wake from its slumber and start supporting this scrappy but energetic grassroots network of activists?

At 11AM yesterday morning in the ritzy Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, a well-dressed young man named Vladimir Lasky picked up a microphone and gave a short, prepared speech to a small but enthusiastic crowd of people who had gathered around him.

The crowd didn’t look like your average group of political activists. They were of all ages, from young people who appeared to be students to those tending towards middle age, as well as aged citizens who had probably long since retired. There were both men and women. The only thing they had in common was that several were wearing brightly coloured but cheaply manufactured t-shirts emblazoned with a shield logo, and they all looked a little embarrassed to be there, but still quite determined to push their message.

The shield logo was replicated on a large banner which several of the group held, and sitting by the side were several large boxes which appeared to be stacked to the gills with A4 pieces paper.

Lasky’s speech, delivered confidently, precisely, and with finesse, went along very similar lines to a press release which he had co-authored, and which was released late last week. You can watch a video of the speech at iTNews here.

“We’re sending a strong message to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he needs to start listening to the Australian people,” said Lasky in the release. Behind him, on the day, can be seen Turnbull’s personal electorate office. Edgecliff is in the heart of his Federal seat of Wentworth.

“The 270,000 signatures on the change.org petition shows there is overwhelming support for the Fibre to the Premises model.”

“The NBN is the most critical infrastructure project in Australia right now, and it needs to be built right to unlock the growth of Australia’s Information economy, education and R&D capabilities. Fibre-to-the-Node will turn Australia into a telecommunications backwater and make it a much less attractive place for business. The presence of large ugly cabinets littering our streets will be a lingering monument to our folly of accepting this inferior architecture”.

These are the NBN Defenders, Australia’s newest, but not its smallest, social movement. And their message is starting to be heard loud and strong.

It wasn’t just the Earl of Wentworth who received a message from the NBN Defenders yesterday. Right around Australia, Liberal, National, Labor, Greens, Palmer United Party and even independent members of parliament were listening to similar speeches by erudite spokespeople and facing similarly diverse groups of concerned public citizens.

And, of course, they were taking delivery of their own boxes filled with thousands of sheets of printed paper. Paper filled with the signatures of some 270,000 Australians who had signed an online petition calling for Turnbull and the Coalition to reconsider their Fibre to the Node-based National Broadband Network policy and support Labor’s more ambitious and more established Fibre to the premises-based version of the NBN instead.

The first extraordinary thing about this event is that it was not organised by a formal political party. There is no massive party machine behind the events which were held around Australia at dozens of different MPs’ offices simultaneously. The people attending did not know each other. They were not joint members of a political party. By and large, they did not even work together.

Lasky himself isn’t a typical political activist; in fact, his LinkedIn profile lists him as being a computer systems engineering consultant and expert web developer. He’s a software engineer and, by the looks of it, one who has a fair degree of business smarts. Precisely someone you’d expect to be a member of the Liberal Party — not standing on its doorstep protesting its policies.

All the NBN Defenders have in common is that they are concerned members of the public who believe the new Coalition Government is implementing the wrong national telecommunications policy. They have been persuaded of the benefits of the previous Government’s already established NBN policy — and they want it back.

They are the disenfranchised; those who had been expecting to be set free by Labor’s promised digital revolution. And now, organised almost purely through a Facebook campaign orchestrated by a student in Queensland, they are starting to find each other and express their democratic rights, in a stark demonstration that many of the same old world political and social movement concepts still apply to the new world of the Internet.

We know that these events happened all around Australia, because participants made a point of posting photos on Facebook of the event.

There are photos of NBN Defenders outside the office of LNP MP Teresa Gambaro in Brisbane. There are similar shots at the office of Greens MP Adam Bandt in Melbourne. The Liberals’ Nolar Marino in Bunbury, Western Australia. Liberal John Alexander in the Sydney seat of Bennelong. The Nationals’ Mark Coulton in Parkes. And many more. Dozens more.

Some MPs, such as independent Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania, actually came out of their office to proudly hold up the NBN Defenders’ signage and pose for happy snaps. This especially appeared to happen in Labor and independent seats, but some brave Liberal MPs, such as Josh Frydenberg from the Melbourne seat of Kooyong, came out to speak with the protesters and debate the issues. Kudos. We can’t say that Turnbull was able to do the same.

But even when the MPs who were targeted didn’t leave their offices, or their staff didn’t, it would have been impossible for any of the MPs who were visited to completely ignore the protests. After all, each and every group left behind them at least three fat boxes of pro-fibre NBN petitions. That’s not the sort of thing you get in the mail every day (the irony of leaving signatures on paper to support a technology policy notwithstanding).

If the first extraordinary thing about the event was that it appeared to be organised completely outside of normal political processes, the second extraordinary thing is how little the major political party associated with the NBN policy paid to it.

After all, we’re not talking here about the usual sort of protest you see in Australia.

It’s common, in our democracy, to see groups publicly expressing dissent on a wide range of issues. Your writer lives in Sydney, and I’ve witnessed (and sometimes participated in) protests on issues such as war, the treatment of refugees, gay marriage rights, globalisation and more.

The reason these protests usually occur is that they are championing issues which are outside of the usual political processes. Neither major side of Australian politics officially supports peace as a way of life; each will go, and has gone, to war with other countries when they consider it to be necessary. Neither has a humane approach to the treatment of refugees. Neither officially supports gay marriage. Both support globalisation. And so on.

In the context of these issues, public protest is one of the only ways the dissenting public can get their point across to politicians who, too often, seem to toe their party line.

However, yesterday’s protests were not along these lines — this was not an issue outside the major political parties. Instead, those protesting were actually barracking directly for a policy platform which one side of politics had created. Although the NBN Defenders are not mostly members of the Australian Labor Party (although I’m sure a few are), they are protesting to directly support a Labor policy in the form of an all-fibre NBN.

And Labor completely ignored that.

There are Labor branches in every city and town in Australia; the party in total is reported to have in excess of 30,000 members nationally. With just 150 Members of Parliament being targeted in real life by the NBN Defenders, garnering support through their sophisticated Facebook campaign, it should have been a piece of cake for Labor to motivate its local branches to get a couple of dozen members each to support the NBN Defender campaign in each electorate. Doing so would have elevated the protest substantially, even if there were only a few more Labor member participants than there were members of the NBN Defender movement.

And yet, Labor completely ignored that.

I am in regular contact with the offices of Labor’s Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare, and his deputy, Michelle Rowland. I also speak to other senior Labor figures. I know quite a few that actively read my articles on Delimiter. I know that they are aware of the popular pro-NBN support movement that organised the NBN Defender events this week.

And yet, the most support that I saw Labor give the NBN Defender movement on this issue was a single email to its national database. Issued by Riley Boughton, a ‘digital organiser at the ALP’ who only graduated from high school in 2011 and is still at university, Boughton’s plea to the Labor membership to “stand up for what we want” and support the NBN Defender movement didn’t precisely carry much weight.

There was no media release yesterday issued by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who was too busy chatting with Sky News about Tony Abbott’s plans to “axe school funding” and the Indonesian spy scandal. Shorten also appeared on the ABC’s flagship 7:30 current affairs program last night. He again went into school funding and the Indonesian situation in detail, but the NBN policy — one of Labor’s most important and enduring reforms, Australia’s largest infrastructure project and an initiative which will affect all Australians and the entire economy — didn’t rate a mention. Australians all over the nation were picketing MPs’ offices and demanding answers from the Coalition — but Shorten doesn’t appear to care — or even to know.

There was also no media release issued by the portfolio Shadow Minister, Jason Clare, who, it appears, has been ignoring the NBN Defender movement in favour of holding his own separate meetings with residents about the NBN along the Eastern seaboard, to little to no effect on the national conversation.

There was no media release issued by the tech-savvy Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, who, like Shorten, appeared to be busily tackling Abbott on the education issue.

Other Labor voices passionate about the NBN issue were also silent — Senator Stephen Conroy, who founded the NBN, Kate Lundy and Ed Husic, who have championed it — and appeared to have no idea that there was an organic social movement going on in cities all around Australia to promote Labor policy.

To my mind, this inaction by Labor is nothing short of rank incompetence.

Polls and surveys taken over the past several years have consistently demonstrated a strong level of support for Labor’s NBN policy, with as much as 75 percent of the Australian population believing at various points that it was the right policy to take Australia’s telecommunications industry forward. Analysis has also shown that political parties which supported a FTTP version of the NBN received more votes during the recent Federal Election in the Senate. That level of support for Labor’s NBN policy is so strong that an organic social movement has arisen and is currently picketing MP’s offices right around Australia over the issue. And yet Labor is completely ignoring the situation. As I wrote several weeks ago:

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.

In his media release about the NBN Defender movement, Lasky stated: “Fibre to the Premises critics have called it the Rolls Royce solution, but Australians would choose the Rolls-Royce over the Red Rattler any day. If Estonia, South Africa and other less wealthy countries can afford to implement Fibre-to-the-Premises, why can’t we?”

But perhaps the bigger issue here is why Labor isn’t giving ‘Rolls Royce’ support to the pro-FTTP National Broadband Network movement, rather than treating it as though it doesn’t exist.

Nick Paine, the Queensland student who started the change.org petition which was presented yesterday to MPs around Australia, stated in the media release last week that he only expected to get a few thousand signatures from the effort.

“To see it take off in this fashion shows there’s a real depth of feeling about this issue in the community and Mr Turnbull would do well to take heed of that sentiment.”

Well, Turnbull has already sat up and paid notice. In the week after the petition took off, the then-Communications Minister-elect sternly rejected the effort. “The promoters of this petition apparently believe that we should ignore the lengthy public debate on the NBN that preceded the election and also ignore the election result. We should within days of the election walk away from one of our most well debated, well understood and prominent policies. Democracy? I don’t think so,” Turnbull said at the time.

In ignoring the pro-FTTP National Broadband Network movement — a movement which exists to support its own policy — Labor is taking the same approach. It appears to believe that politics is only for politicians, and that campaigning is only for election campaigns.

It’s ironic. Because the Australian Labor Party itself began as a social movement just like the NBN Defenders. Wikipedia tells us: “The present Australian Labor Party has its origins in the Labour parties founded in the 1890s in the Australian colonies prior to federation. Labor tradition ascribes the founding of Queensland Labour to a meeting of striking pastoral workers under a ghost gum tree (the “Tree of Knowledge”) in Barcaldine, Queensland in 1891.”

One wonders whether movements like the NBN Defender group will end up going down the same path and become political parties themselves. With two terms of Coalition dominance of the Federal Government looking likely at this point, and the NBN likely to stay around as a serious national issue throughout that period, it’s certainly got the time to organise. One wonders just how long it will take Labor to realise just how distant it is from the desires and political actions of ordinary Australians. Let’s hope it doesn’t take six years.

When he rejected the change.org petition, Turnbull acknowledged the NBN debate was not over. Well, the Member for Wentworth turned out to be entirely correct. But he may not have understood just who he would be debating. The truth is that Labor has largely ignored the National Broadband Network issue over the several months since it lost the Federal Election. In its absence, ordinary Australians are energetically taking to the streets to protest. In comparison, Labor’s senior NBN spokespeople seem barely able to get out of bed.


  1. Good article Renai.

    This problem is just one of many for Labor and they all have the same systemic root, they have forgotten their ‘grass roots’.

    Rudd had a crack at trying to do something about it, and it didn’t go anywhere near far enough to fix it. They really need to open the party back up to non-union people if they want to maintain any relevance (and members!) in the future.

    Much like Gonski, I don’t expect the Liberals to honour any agreement/promise they made prior, or during, the election. The way they have been going, it really wouldn’t surprise me to see them “bin” the whole idea :(

    • Cheers!

      I completely agree, Labor in general appears to have completely forgotten its grassroots. This is the very definition of a grassroots campaign supporting Labor’s policies, and yet the party cannot seem to engage. It drives me nuts. I was fairly shocked to find out that Labor only has 30,000 members total. Is our country really governed by such a small movement? It seems absurd. They desperately need to get away from the unions and start relating to a much wider base.

      I still have some faith in the Coalition, but they have a very hard task ahead of them. It will not be easy by any measure.

  2. The problem Labor are having is the union have become less relevant as we have become more prosperous as a nation and are using the Labor party to try and hold on. The big issue that while the unions the themselves become less relevant the sort thing they stand for are still important however by throwing their weight around in the party they alienate a significant percentage of potential supporters.

    This bit is off topic the biggest failing on unions as I see it is china, they concentrate on taking action in Australia and trying to get funding to support Australian industry but the reality of the matter is if you want to protect these jobs they should work on a international basis to to raise worker conditions in the countries that this work is going to.

    • The real problem is,the loss of the communication minister !
      What ever so called experts say,there is nobody in the labor party
      that understands the to organise the broadband technology as it excist
      at the moment.I will never see a roll out here in the illawarra,No new work
      in planed !

      • I don’t necessarily agree the loss of Conroy as Comms Minister, if that is who you mean, is a big issue for Labor. They have Ed Husic, Kate Lundy, Michelle Rowland, all of whom understand the broadband issue very well.

    • I think much of the problem with Labor is that that don’t know who they are marketing themselves to. The working class is continually shrinking in Australia as we become a nation of knowledge workers and professional service people — and even small businesspeople. That’s Liberal territory.

      I think Labor really needs to reinvent themselves along the lines that Australians vote: Financially conservative, but socially liberal. Keep the budget in the black and approve gay marriage etc.

      Of course, this would mean alienating the unions, and if you are around on polling day, you’ll see truckloads of union supporters brought in by bus to support the Labor vote. Those unions are really the only reason Labor is getting elected in the first place.

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