news Communications Minister Mitch Fifield yesterday praised the Coalition Government he is part of for what he described as its “spectacular” turnaround in the progress of Labor’s National Broadband Network project, labelling the project’s founder Stephen Conroy as its greatest “threat”.
In Senate Question Time yesterday, WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith asked Fifield a number of favourable questions — known as ‘Dorothy Dixers’ regarding the Coalition’s stewardship of the NBN project, inviting Fifield to comment on why it was important to undertake detailed planning prior to embarking on large infrastructure projects such as the NBN, as well as what the Coalition had done to improve the performance of the project.
In response, Fifield strongly attacked the previous Labor Government, which initiated the NBN project during the tenure of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister.
“I think everyone in this place knows that the NBN is the largest and most complex infrastructure project in Australian history,” said Fifield “… Yet, when those opposite were embarking upon this venture, they cut every single corner they possibly could. They avoided a cost-benefit analysis.”
“They abandoned normal cabinet process. And, when Senator Conroy, as minister, appointed a board, not one person on the board had telecommunications experience—not one out of eight. While Senator Conroy was in charge he waited for more than a year after appointing the executive chairman to actually issue a statement of expectations to the company.”
“Where this chaos and mismanagement really showed was in the financial and operational targets. By the time of the election the rollout was already years behind forecast. And, after receiving $6.5 billion in funding, less than three per cent of premises were passed, and there were only 50,000 users on the network.”
The turnaround in the NBN’s fortunes under the Coalition, Fifield said, had been “nothing short of spectacular”.
The Minister specifically highlighted the Coalition’s progress in deploying the NBN across northern Australia, listing numbers of premises able to be connected in regional cities such as Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Darwin.
“Possibly the best example is the Territory,” the Communications Minister said. “The NBN is powering ahead there with 40,000 premises in Darwin now in the footprint and about 6,700 left to cover within the next year. The next rollout site to kick off this week will be the centre of Alice Springs, with about 9,200 premises in the forward build schedule for Alice, starting with around 2,000 homes and businesses.”
Asked whether there were any threats to the rollout of the NBN, Fifield pointed to Conroy — who was interjecting into the Minister’s response — and said: “‘Senator Conroy’ is the primary answer to Senator Smith’s question.”
“And I think even those opposite know that if Labor did come back into government, as much as we like [Shadow Communications Minister] Jason Clare—and we genuinely do on this side—it would actually be Senator Conroy who had his hands on the levers. I think that is something that not only those of us on this side but many on the other side might be more than a little concerned about.”
At least on paper, Minister Fifield is correct — Labor did make relatively little rollout progress with the NBN, compared with the progress which the Coalition has made in the past several years.
However, what Fifield did not mention — so we will do it for him — is that major infrastructure projects are always like this. The first few years of any huge project are devoted to design and setup work, with early trials of construction going on. The NBN company always planned to rapidly ramp up its rollout progress as it got to the middle and then later period of its rollout period.
In addition, when judging the Coalition’s performance with respect to the NBN, I believe we should be looking primarily not at the Fibre to the Premises portion of the rollout — which was initiated under Labor, but the Multi-Technology Mix approach initiated by the Coalition. I’m talking about the Fibre to the Node and HFC cable portions of the Coalition’s MTM approach.
When you examine these technologies, you quickly find that the Coalition is guilty of the same crime it is accusing Labor of — spending several years preparing for the rollout of broadband infrastructure, before actually accelerating its rollout. Very little real-world connections to FTTN and HFC cable infrastructure have been made under the Coalition.
In his comments this week, Fifield is very much claiming credit for rolling out FTTP infrastructure — something Labor initiated and that the Coalition was always against.
I wonder whether the worm will turn in a few years and if we’ll see a Labor Government attempt to claim credit for its huge success in deploying technologies it was against — FTTN and HFC cable. It’s certainly possible. What goes around certainly comes around in circular Canberra.