news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has denied there is any hypocrisy in the Coalition Government not waiting for the same kind of cost/benefit analysis to be conducted into its broadband policy that it demanded from the previous Labor administration, accusing his critics of being ‘stuck in a Labor mindset’.
In Opposition, one of the central criticisms which Turnbull levelled at the then-Labor Federal Government was that it had initiated its popular NBN project without conducting a cost/benefit analysis into the project’s fundamental underpinnings. Such cost/benefit analyses are commonly conducted by government agency Infrastructure Australia.
“The Gillard Government must urgently undertake a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the network. Its stubborn failure to do so can only lead us to conclude that it does not want to know what that analysis will reveal,” wrote Turnbull in an article on the subject in 2010. He would go on to repeat similar comments many times over the successive three years.
The Coalition’s broadband policy document released in April 2013 (PDF) states regarding Labor’s NBN project: “NBN Co was created as a taxpayer-owned monopoly with a mandate to replace Telstra’s copper with fibre (and achieve a competition policy objective: the separation of Telstra’s network from its retail business). This decision was made in haste with scarcely any analysis of alternative options and with no attempt to measure its costs or benefits. ”
It further adds: “Labor’s re-establishment of a public monopoly in a crucial sector of the economy, and its archaic refusal to weigh options, costs and benefits, or seek genuinely expert advice, demonstrate disdain for the proven policy principles of the past 30 years.”
To address this problem, in mid-December Turnbull appointed a panel of experts, to be led by Michael Vertigan, a senior top-level Tasmanian businessman and executive who has also served as the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, as well as having an involvement with a number of other Tasmanian initiatives.
The panel is to conduct what Turnbull described as an “independent” costs/benefit analysis and review of regulation associated with the NBN. The analysis will analyse the economic and social costs and benefits (including both direct and indirect effects) arising from the availability of broadband of differing properties via various technologies, and to make recommendations on the role of Government support and a number of other longer-term industry matters. It is expected to be handed down in mid-2014.
However, last week Turnbull revealed the Government had already ordered NBN Co to go ahead with its controversial “Multi-Technology Mix” option for its network rollout, before the Vertigan Review could hand down its report. The model will need less up-front capital than Labor’s all-fibre plan, but has been criticised as being more risky and for being technically inferior.
In an opinionated article published on the ABC’s The Drum site this morning (we recommend you click here for the full article), Turnbull argued that there was no reason to be outraged by the Coalition’s decision to progress with its broadband policy without receiving a cost/benefit analysis into the issue.
“Some people have said that it is an outrage this SoE has been delivered prior to the Vertigan panel’s completion of the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of the NBN, due in the middle of the year,” he wrote. “This shows that our critics are still stuck in a Labor government mindset of technology choices being made politically, if not ideologically.”
“The results of the CBA will be very helpful to both the Government and NBN Co and they will certainly influence the rollout … The reason for providing the SoE now is simply so that NBN Co has the formal approval from Government for continuing with its move to a multi-technology approach.”
Turnbull’s move to go ahead without a cost/benefit analysis into the Coalition’s MTM option for NBN Co’s rollout has attracted strong censure from most commentators on the issue.
In an article for The Drum yesterday, long-term telecommunications commentator David Braue pointed out that it was possible that the Vertigan Review would reject Turnbull’s MTM approach to NBN Co’s rollout as being not the best option in the long term, when compared with Labor’s all-fibre model.
“It’s one thing to change the NBN, as Turnbull has made no bones about promising he would do,” Braue wrote. “But when a Minister who was basically elected into his current position by his strong and unwavering call for better governance decides that those governance rules simply no longer apply to him because it’s inconvenient – this is cause for concern.”
ZDNet Editor Chris Duckett added: “By abandoning any pretense of fiscal responsibility and proper governance in the Coalition’s stewardship of the NBN, Turnbull is now covered in the same muck that he skillfully hurled in Labor’s direction for years.”
Turnbull’s response on this issue should not be a surprise at all. We’ve seen the same approach from the Communications Minister for some time. Attack, attack, attack, on all fronts, taking as hard-line and ideological approach as possible (another good example is Turnbull’s character attacks on founding NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley), but when displaying the exact same behaviour which he has criticised in Labor, deny that the same rules apply to him.
Turnbull’s article today also has the same character of many of his previous responses when criticism has been levelled at the MP from the media: Attack the media itself. On previous occasions Turnbull has accused Australia’s technology media of being “parochial”, “NBN cheerleaders” and even “pro-NBN zealot journalists”. It should not be a surprise to see the Minister using the same tactics here and accusing his media critics of being stuck in the past, merely for the crime of pointing out his obvious hypocrisy.
Informed readers will realise that it is not the content of what Turnbull has said in his article today that is actually important. The mere fact that the Minister has felt it necessary to react in this way reveals he feels he is under pressure on this issue, and this is the real underlying truth here. If Turnbull wasn’t bothered by the criticism, he would simply ignore it.
“The IT industry is highly aware that Turnbull has, only a few months after the election, completely abandoned the policy the Coalition took to the election, installed his own cronies at NBN Co and is pumping out a series of heavily compromised audits and reviews, some of which appear solely aimed at ensuring Labor will never win power again. Along the way, the Minister is regularly saying one thing and doing something completely different, including blithely taking steps which he strongly criticised the previous Government for.”
Accountability is important. Turnbull’s response demonstrates squarely that he knows he is in the headlights right now and that the public is aware of his hypocrisy on the cost/benefit analysis issue. I suggest people maintain the pressure on the Minister to perform his duties in a competent manner and with integrity. We should expect nothing less of a Minister of the Crown. In fact, we should expect the highest standards from people in such a position: Not, as some are currently displaying, among the lowest.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting