opinion/analysis The new Coalition Government appears dead set on drastically winding back, modifying, selling off or otherwise destroying Labor’s comprehensive National Broadband Network vision. But the party which started the project in the first place appears to have already given up fighting this demolition job, with the exception of dogmatic former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
If you have been following news surrounding the previous Labor Government’s flagship National Broadband Network initiative since the Federal Election in September, you would be very hard pressed to escape the conclusion that Tony Abbott’s Coalition administration was doing its very best to deliver on the Prime Minister’s 2010 pledge to “demolish” the project.
In September, shortly after taking office, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered NBN Co to halt planning efforts for its existing Fibre to the Premises model in most areas. The MP then put a crack team of his own executives into the company, who promptly delivered a report stating that the best model for deploying the network in up to a third of Australia, including key metropolitan areas, was to stop deploying it and re-use existing HFC cable networks.
Most of the rest of Australia is set to receive technically inferior and short-sighted Fibre to the Node connections, despite the fact that even new NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski has acknowledged many premises with that technology will start to need upgrades after just five years.
That announcement was quickly followed by the news that Tasmania would no longer receive a full FTTP rollout — despite state politicians from both sides pleading with Turnbull on the issue. And now speculation has openly begun about NBN Co selling off the satellite and wireless components of its rollout.
It must be said, at this point, that Turnbull is doing an absolutely fantastic job of demolishing the NBN. Most of the planned rollout cancelled, with existing networks to take its place and other portions of the NBN sold off? That’s definitely not the Coalition “completing” the NBN, as Turnbull has repeatedly claimed. That’s winding Labor’s vision back wholesale, with a little cherry on top for Telstra and Optus in the form of cash payments for the HFC cable networks they stopped extending a decade ago.
From the Liberal point of view, this approach makes complete sense: As Turnbull has stated many times, a Coalition Government would have never gone down the path of re-constructing a national telecommunications monopoly from scratch. Left to its own devices, the Coalition would love to privatise Australian institutions such as Australia Post, the ABC and SBS. It’s hardly a stretch to see NBN Co on the same auction block.
However, what is surprising is Labor’s apparent willingness to play along with the Coalition’s plans.
I met with Labor MPs Jason Clare and Michelle Rowland shortly after they were respectively appointed Shadow Communications Minister and his Assistant Minister in mid-October last year. At the time, I reminded both that the Australian electorate was very much on Labor’s side in this debate; that Australians in general deeply supported Labor’s NBN policy and that there was even a popular movement in existence completely independent of Labor trying to push the Coalition to back Labor’s existing FTTP vision.
I also reminded both of Turnbull’s habit of dominating national debate on any issue through the Liberal MP’s constant and incessant use of traditional and social media. To tackle Turnbull head on on this issue, I said at the time, a Shadow Minister would need to use the same tools — blogging regularly, using platforms such as Twitter, and constantly staying on the Earl of Wentworth like a full back marking a star full forward.
Most of the Australian public wants Labor’s NBN vision, not the Coalition’s watered down alternative. But in Opposition and in Government, Turnbull has constantly been able to keep control the national NBN debate because he never stops talking. I’m not kidding when I say that often journalists get statements from Turnbull on various issues every day.
In comparison, Labor’s MPs just don’t seem able to talk about the NBN at all, despite the fact that it’s their own policy Turnbull is currently demolishing.
Clare hasn’t issued a press release on the NBN since 18 February — a whole month — and in fact has only spoken publicly about the issue a half dozen times in the entirety of 2014. Last week, as the Twittersphere went berserk in anger over impolite comments by Turnbull towards a rural Victorian small business owner on the issue of the NBN, Clare and Rowland appeared more focused on having their photo taken with the Bananas in Pyjamas and the Wiggles.
Despite her fiery parliamentary record supporting the NBN, the issue has also been largely absent from recent speeches given and media releases issued by Michelle Rowland, with the MP appearing to be taking her other role as the Shadow Minister for Citizen and Multiculturalism more seriously, as well as the needs of her local (extremely marginal) electorate in Western Sydney.
Rowland did pop up in a piece on iTWire on telehealth several weeks ago, but it was promptly squashed by Turnbull. And even that issue was then bungled further by Labor, with Senator Helen Polley issuing a garbled press release last week following up on the issue and relating it to NBN Co’s launch of a medical alarm device register, but hopelessly confusing the issues and technology in a way which definitely netted Labor no ground and was ignored by most of the media wholesale.
There are other Labor parliamentarians who are passionate about the NBN — Ed Husic, Kate Lundy and Tim Watts, to name a few — but Labor appears to have muzzled the lot. Even if it hasn’t, they certainly aren’t out there talking about Turnbull’s demolishing act on the project.
As for Labor leader Bill Shorten, I encourage you to comb through the many, almost daily speeches and press releases Shorten has issued over the past six months. I guarantee you’ll find the words “National Broadband Network” are only mentioned a couple of times. In this area, Shorten is proving himself even less aware of technology issues than Tony Abbott, if that was possible. At least Abbott is able to mouth the same slogans with respect to the NBN that the Coalition came up with before the Federal Election. Shorten appears to have forgotten the issue exists at all.
The only Labor politician who is active on the NBN is, as you would expect, its creator Senator Stephen Conroy, who despite his new posting as Shadow Defence Minister can’t help butting his nose in continuously on the issue, especially in the fraught Senate Select Committee which has been set up to investigate the Coalition’s demolition job on the project. The irony is that, even as Shadow Defence Minister, Conroy’s still doing a better job of getting press coverage in the portfolio than Clare or Rowland.
Now, let me make something clear: From a personal point of view, I like both Jason Clare and Michelle Rowland. Both are very solid MPs: Educated, erudite, ethical, and grounded in their local electorates while also taking on higher-level national policy issues. They were both good appointees to the Shadow Minister in the Communications area, and they still have time before the next Shadow Cabinet reshuffle to make their mark. They have competent staff assisting them.
But let’s make no bones about it: Both, and indeed Labor as a whole, are fumbling the catch here.
They have been handed a gift horse — a national issue which the population cares deeply about, and is overwhelmingly on Labor’s side. As the continued vitriol towards Turnbull personally shows, the Australian public deplores what is happening to Labor’s NBN project. It’s widely acknowledged that Labor bungled its execution when in Government, but that doesn’t give the Coalition licence to tear it down.
Yet Labor is largely ignoring this issue; leaving it up to a small number of technology and business commentators who still follow the project to represent the public’s views on the issue. As a journalist this is extremely frustrating. It’s quite difficult to hold the Government of the day to account if the Opposition is acting like a wet noodle. Even a top-grade assault rifle can’t fire at the enemy if it doesn’t have ammunition.
It’s difficult to divine the source of Labor’s lack of interest in the NBN. The passion which MPs such as Rowland, Husic and Watts personally hold for the communications portfolio is extremely evident. I can’t imagine a scenario where this trio in particular isn’t champing at the bit to get out there and take on a high-profile Liberal Minister such as Malcolm Turnbull on a daily basis, especially given the MP’s continued gaffes in this area, and the antagonistic approach he’s taking to his critics and the media alike. Then, too, Labor MPs can hardly be unaware of the public’s continued disapproval of the Coalition’s approach in this area.
Perhaps it is the case, as Paula Matthewson writes in The Drum today, that Labor can’t lay a punch on the Coalition because it is implicated in the same problems the new Government is trying to solve. From the refugee situation to the NBN, there is no doubt that Labor shares much of the blame for the ongoing failures of our national administration.
Then too, perhaps there isn’t a lot of impetus from Labor’s top ranks on this issue. Shorten has shown he has little interest in the Communications portfolio, despite his importance. It is possible, given Labor’s failures in the area in the past, that Labor’s elite has muzzled its MPs from getting too involved in the topic publicly. Conroy is probably senior enough to ignore such an edict, but other MPs may not be.
But this shouldn’t excuse Labor from pushing this topic. The NBN is a national infrastructure project of critical importance. Against the express desires of the population, and in a manner which makes little practical sense in the long term, Tony Abbott’s administration is drastically watering it down and may even sell parts of it off. If Labor allows the current trend to proceed unchecked, that will be as great a crime, in my eyes, as the Coalition’s own demolition job. No parent should abandon their child, no matter how troubled they are, and the NBN project hasn’t even reached puberty yet.
Image credit: Labor