opinion/analysis Like the fictional Frank Underwood’s ‘America Works’ program, the massive NBN hiring spree unveiled by Malcolm Turnbull in the wee hours of this morning is pure election fodder — a beguiling program designed to demonstrate to the electorate that the reigning Government is instantly responsible for thousands of new jobs.
Those of you who’ve watched the latest season of the popular HBO House of Cards US adaptation (side note: The original UK version is superior in virtually every way — Frank Underwood is no match for Francis Urquhart) will remember that one of the main pitches incumbent President Underwood makes to get re-elected is remarkably simple: Spend millions from the public coffers to instantly employ thousands of Americans.
“The American Dream has failed you,” Underwood tells the public in a national televised address. “Work hard, play by the rules? You aren’t guaranteed success. Your children will not have a better life than you did. 10 million of you can’t even get a job, even though you desperately want one … In the next few weeks, the Democratic leadership will introduce a bill called America Works. Its goal is simple: to put the 10 million Americans who are unemployed to work. All of them. If you want a job, you get one.”
Stirring words, and they excite the nation, but of course, the whole project is a collossal scam. Underwood farcically uses his presidential powers to appropriate funds from the Disaster Relief Fund operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — cash that is supposed to be used only in the event that Hurricane Katrina or its brethren decide to make a reappearance. The jobs themselves amount to no more than direct government hand-outs for positions that would be otherwise unsupportable.
But to the American public, it turns out that it doesn’t really matter — a job is a job if you’re unemployed, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. The political wrangling can be ignored, if it puts people back to work and they start getting paychecks again. Anyone would vote for someone that could do that for them.
I was strongly reminded of Underwood’s initiative when I woke up this morning to a string of sensationalist headlines telling me that the NBN project was to hire no less than 4,500 new workers. “Thousands of jobs on offer with NBN,” screamed the news.com.au headline. And the Herald Sun took the angle that it was all about putting Telstra’s ageing army of retired contractors back into the field. Bonzer.
On the face of it, the initiative sounds fantastic. The nbn project forks out a mere $40 million (peanuts for a project which is slated to cost somewhere north of $30 billion at a minimum), thousands of workers get instant jobs, (including aged workers who often get locked out of the workforce), and the nbn project as a whole gets ‘accelerated’ — better broadband faster (and, according to the Minister, cheaper). Triple bonzer.
The only problem is, like Underwood’s America Works project, there are elements of this program which appear to be largely a mirage — a beautiful paradise shimmering in the distance that vanishes when you get close to it.
For starters, one might ask nbn chief executive Bill Morrow why, if these 4,500 workers are so critical to the delivery of the nbn, the contracting firms which will be doing most of the hiring haven’t already hired and trained them?
Major companies like Transfield, Visionstream and Downer hold major contracts worth millions to build portions of the nbn, and have done so for years now. When they were bidding for these contracts, the companies assured nbn that they could source the labor to deliver on their contracts. Why, then, haven’t they done so?
And why is nbn itself splashing out $40 million to deliver training so that these companies can hire people? I can understand nbn itself advertising for workers on its own payroll and then training them itself. But why aren’t the likes of Transfield — a multi-billion-dollar company — doing their own training? Surely the contracting firms are responsible for training their own staff?
Secondly, why weren’t these workers hired long ago? The NBN project has been in “accelerate” mode for quite some years now, with fibre and wireless infrastructure being rolled out all around Australia. If, as Minister Turnbull said this morning, the NBN is now going to “significantly ramp up”, why didn’t it ramp up sooner? Why couldn’t these staff have been brought on board sooner, trained earlier, to prepare for this phase of the rollout?
Then there are the jobs themselves. All of the media emanating from nbn and from the Minister’s office this morning gives the headline figure of 4,500 workers.
But what that figure doesn’t say is that many of these jobs will not be permanent. For starters, the major contracting firms are likely to pick up local workers in specific geographical areas, use them to help deploy the NBN in that area, and then drop them from their roster due to a lack of work in their region. But secondly, the whole NBN itself is a project which is scheduled to be finished in the early years of next decade. We’re not talking about a decade-long commitment here — this will be a short engagement of 6-7 years at maximum.
This reality can be seen in the relatively small amount of money which nbn itself is ploughing into this initiative. $40 million might seem like a lot, but it’s really only a tiny amount — it won’t cover much in the way of salaries or training costs.
What I suspect has happened here is that nbn itself is seeking to accelerate its own rollout by proactively aiding its construction partners to find staff that they may have difficulty finding themselves, by ploughing bundles of investment into training colleges to help fuel the employment ecosystem. The construction partners wouldn’t organically invest these amounts themselves, so it’s likely something that nbn has taken on board.
We’re probably seeing a bunch of existing training initiatives rolled up with a bunch of new ones, as well as a bunch of existing hiring initiatives (nbn was pretty much always hiring anyway) rolled up with a bunch of new ones, to generate a headline investment and jobs figure which can be announced as a total package.
No doubt we will find out more about the specific details around this project during the next nbn Senate Select Committee or Senate Estimates hearings. I can hear Senator Stephen Conroy sharpening his pencil even now. It will be fascinating to hear all about where this morning’s idea originated — in Bill Morrow’s office or Malcolm Turnbull’s — and what nbn executives think about their project being described as “The Coalition’s NBN”. Can’t wait for that one.
Now, the ultimate aim for Turnbull here, of course, is to help the Coalition win the upcoming election, as well as helping the Minister, as a potential future Liberal leader, look good.
The Member for Wentworth’s Facebook page this morning features a large custom-created graphic with the number of new ‘jobs’ being created by nbn in each state, with the tagline ‘The Coalition’s NBN’. Turnbull himself is in Adelaide this morning splicing fibre optic cable with formerly retired Telstra workers drafted to the NBN project.
You can expect more and more of this behaviour as the next election comes closer. The Minister will constantly spruik the 4,500 jobs figure and will reject all attempts to break it down so that the factual accuracy of the situation can be determined. We’re about to hear a great deal more about “The Coalition’s NBN” and how it’s delivering all around Australia — especially in marginal electorates, no doubt.
And if Labor questions any stage of the NBN project, you can bet the Coalition will accuse it of trying to kill off jobs. That’s just par for the course.
The only question here is to what extent nbn itself — especially nbn chief executive Bill Morrow — allows itself to be used in this open exercise of winning votes. During the 2013 Federal Election period, the company held launches with Labor all over the country, which some regarded as placing nbn in breach of its obligations under the public sector’s Caretaker Conventions. This morning’s announcement has more than a whiff about it of nbn going quite far to please its shareholder Minister. One does wonder just how far it will go.
This morning’s nbn announcement coincided with a Cabinet meeting held in Adelaide. A bunch of policy announcements will be made as the Abbott Government campaigns to bolster its vote in South Australia. Submarines, car manufacturing and the nbn. Anyone who thinks the timing of this morning’s announcement was a coincidence needs to make up and smell the political reality that the nbn launch integrates well with everything else the Coalition is pushing today. Convenient, no?
I could ask Turnbull himself whether the idea or the timing for this morning’s announcement came from his office, of course, but I might get back a rather nebulous answer. Perhaps something like: “You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull