news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has told radio listeners in Brisbane that he has never personally been guilty of deliberately misstating facts, despite the fact that a number of the Liberal MP’s statements over the past several years with respect to national broadband policy have been highly contested by commentators.
This morning, Turnbull conducted an interview with 4BC’s Patrick Condren, the morning host of Brisbane’s only commercial AM talkback station. You can listen to the interview through 4BC’s website, or read the transcript online. It dealt with subjects as wide-ranging as national broadband policy, the ABC and subsidies for fruit company SPC Ardmona. Turnbull’s visit to Brisbane appears to be associated with the Griffith by-election to be held this Saturday.
In one segment, Turnbull was asked when residents of Griffith would be able to connect to the National Broadband Network begun under Labor (Delimiter currently refers to the significantly altered project as the Coalition’s Broadband Network or CBN). In response, Turnbull said the Government was working on the issue, but turned the spotlight on Labor’s management of the NBN during its two terms in power under Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
“All I can say is they’ll get it a lot sooner under our Government than they ever would have done under Labor. After six years of Labor’s NBN nothing was built in Griffith and in fact only two percent of the network overall was constructed. So the project as you know was massively behind schedule,” the Minister said. “… the exact timetable is something that the company will set in due course but all I can tell is that it will be completed much sooner than it would have been done had Labor stayed in government and continued with their plan.”
Turnbull specifically accused Labor of having a “disconnect from reality” with respect to the management of the project, giving as one example the fact that NBN Co had stated it had passed some 250,000 premises with satellite broadband speeds, despite the fact that the company’s current satellite access could only serve around 48,000 premises.
Host Patrick Condren responded: “But with respect, you know, politicians embellish all the time … They do it with monotonous regularity.” When Turnbull replied that this behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated, Condren directly asked Turnbull whether he had “never been guilty of embellishing?”
“I certainly haven’t been guilty of misstating facts, deliberately misstating the facts,” Turnbull responded.
Referring to the claims by Liberal MP Sharman Stone that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had lied about conditions at the SPC Ardmona plant to be closed, Turnbull further added that Abbott had “never lied” to him personally. “Tony Abbott is a straight shooter and he tells the truth, he calls it as he is. So the suggestion that he is a liar is just wrong,” said Turnbull.
The comments come despite the fact that Turnbull has appeared to make a number of controversial statements over the past several years with respect to broadband that have been highly contested by commentators.
For example, during the Federal Election campaign last year Turnbull appeared to have made a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about the cost of connecting to the National Broadband Network’s upcoming 1Gbps fibre service, claiming on national television in mid-August that such connections would cost “at least $20,000″ a month, despite the fact that the then-Shadow Communications Minister was aware the cost was likely to be much less.
In another example, in April last year, Turnbull publicly backed as “the facts” a number of highly contentious statements by radio shockjock Alan Jones about Labor’s National Broadband Network project, including Jones’ extremely contested claim that wireless represents the future of broadband in Australia.
During the election campaign, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accused Turnbull and Abbott of openly “lying” to exaggerate the key differences between the two sides of politics’ National Broadband Network policies, using a number of concrete examples to demonstrate his argument.
A further example has come about due to the ongoing statements being made by Turnbull, dating back to June 2012, that the Coalition would “complete the job of NBN Co”, instead of ripping up the network or abandoning Labor’s NBN policy altogether. “What we will be able to do and I will give this solemn undertaking to the Australian people: We will be able to complete the job of the NBN Co,” the Liberal MP said in June 2012. “We are not going to rip it up or tear it up or abandon it. But we will complete the objective, but we will do so in a much more cost-effective way.”
However, commentators have consistently pointed out that the Coalition’s broadband policy is substantially different from Labor’s NBN policy. It does not feature as a policy goal the completion of Labor’s NBN network, but instead currently focuses on abandoning the NBN rollout to up to a third of Australian premises already covered by HFC cable networks, as well as a further percentage of Australia which would be covered by technically inferior Fibre to the Node access technology. Turnbull has never stated that blanket coverage Australia with a Fibre to the Premises network, as under Labor, was a goal of the Coalition.
Abbott, too, has made a number of statements regarding the NBN which have been highly contested. For example, in July 2013, Abbott inaccurately claimed that the rollout of Labor’s National Broadband Network in Tasmania would take “80 years” to complete, in what Labor’s Regional Communications Minister Sharon Bird immediately labelled a deliberate attempt to deceive residents and businesses in the state.
This style of comments — as well as a number of misleading comments being made by Labor on the opposite side of the fence as well — have led to university academics claiming several times over the past several years that the National Broadband Network debate has been poisoned by a constant series of inaccurate and misleading statements.
In April last year, for example, Mark Gregory, senior lecturer at RMIT’s school of electrical and computer engineering, told The Age newspaper that the public was being misled on how alternative technologies including hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) and fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) could be used to replace fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) and speed up the NBN rollout. “The Australian public is being hoodwinked by false statements that have been substantively disproved,” Gregory said at the time.
I’ve been following Malcolm Turnbull’s statements on a daily basis for the past three years since he was appointed Shadow Communications Minister. While I believe that it is quite rare that the Member for Wentworth will go so far as to deliberately attempt to grossly mislead the electorate, I would say that it is quite common for the MP, as with all politicians, to very carefully choose the context of his remarks and to give selective answers to questions. Typically a version of the truth is provided — but nothing near the entire truth.
Furthermore, there have been a number of occasions — such as the infamous Lateline example during the 2013 election campaign, or Turnbull’s backing for Alan Jones’ highly contested statements regarding broadband — where my personal judgement leads me to believe that the MP stepped over a line when it comes to misleading the electorate.
This is not unusual in politics. Both major sides of politics do it, and I suspect you’ll find even worse examples from some of the minor parties. Even the Greens are known to have bent the truth out of recognition from time to time. However, what is a little unusual is seeing a politician baldly claim in public that they have “never” deliberately misstated the facts. That is one claim that I don’t think Turnbull can lightly make.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull