news An outraged Opposition shouted down Mitch Fifield in Senate Question Time today over the latest set of National Broadband Network leaked documents, accusing the Communications Minister of not knowing that the Coalition’s election costing on the NBN was a “lie”.
This morning the Opposition distributed a set of documents which appear to have been produced by the NBN company in August last year, entitled CTO Briefing: Multi-Technology Local Fibre Network. You can download the documents in PDF format here.
According to the documents, the NBN company in mid-2015 came up with a secret plan to dramatically reduce the cost and inconvenience of deploying fibre all the way to customers’ premises. The plan appears to have pushed the costs of a Fibre to the Premises rollout for the NBN significantly closer to the cost of rolling out the Coalition’s preferred Fibre to the Node technology.
Today in Senate Question Time, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was asked about the documents by NBN Senate Select Committee chair, Labor Senator Jan McLucas.
In response, Fifield firstly said that the Opposition and “members of the press gallery” who had received the documents were “hyperventilating”.
The Minister then attempted to revisit earlier comments he had made regarding the documents, attempting to tell the Senate that the NBN company had estimated a cost of $4,400 per premise for rolling out a Fibre to the Premises version of the NBN; that the lower cost trials were already publicly known, and that the cost of individual FTTP installations could, in fact, range into the tens of thousands of dollars, due to the level of civil works involved.
However, Fifield’s response was constantly broken up by a regular set of interjections from the Opposition, particularly former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, the author of the original NBN policy for Labor.
“Did he not tell you he was lying … you didn’t know, did you?” Conroy asked Fifield, appearing to refer to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who led development of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy in his role as Shadow- and then Communications Minister in the Abbott administration.
“You just found out … Malcolm tells lies,” said Conroy.
In response to Fifield’s statement that the cost-cutting plan outlined in the leaked documents was public knowledge, Conroy interjected that the trials in Victoria of the revised technology were “secret”.
“Why are you hiding the outcomes?” Conroy asked.
“You won’t be able to get them to keep on telling lies for you much longer,” Conroy added, appearing to refer to the NBN company.
“They won’t keep lying for you much longer.”
At one point, Senate President Stephen Parry attempted to restore order to the Senate, and Conroy accused Attorney-General and Leader of the Government in the Senate George Brandis of having signalled Parry — a Liberal Senator — to make his move.
At one point, Fifield reiterated his prior statement earlier today that the NBN leaked documents actually referred to a trial of new technology which could cut costs on the Fibre to the Node technology.
Labor Senator Doug Cameron interjected: “Which New Zealand got rid of!”, referring to the country’s own rollout of broadband infrastructure. New Zealand originally used a fibre to the node rollout for its own Ultra-Fast Broadband strategy, but has since shifted to a FTTP model similar to Labor’s original strategy.
At the end of the debate, McLucas finally asked the question: “Isn’t it true that only Labor’s FTTP NBN will deliver faster, higher quality and more reliable broadband to Australians.”
Fifield responded with a single word: “No,” and sat down.
I had to feel sorry for Communications Minister Mitch Fifield during this afternoon’s exchange.
Fifield, after all, was never the author of the MTM NBN policy — he’s just holding the fort here for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. And it’s also true that Labor has gone quite … what I can only describe as “feral” in Federal Parliament this week. The Liberal/Greens deal on Senate voting reform has angered Labor deeply, and the party is reacting with vitriol to absolutely anything vaguely objectionable as a result.
Some of the interjections towards Fifield this afternoon was no doubt a reflection of this wider situation.
However, it’s also true that Fifield is not currently proving able to keep a lid on the NBN situation. Turnbull placed Fifield in this role as Communications Minister to shore up what is a very weak point for the Member for Wentworth.
Although Fifield has been doing an admirable job — he is a very competent Minister and parliamentarian — it is nevertheless true that events are also spiralling out of control and he is not stemming the tide.
We are seeing damaging leak after damaging leak out of the NBN company at the moment, and Fifield’s denials, square statements and pro-MTM talking points are starting to wear extremely thin in the face of the overwhelming amount of evidence that is emerging from the NBN company that the MTM policy is just, as the whole of Australia is aware, a dog.
This is likely to prove something of a quandary for Turnbull.
If the unflappable, extremely stable and competent Fifield can’t keep a lid on this fraught situation, then nobody in the Parliament can. And yet, Turnbull cannot back away from the flawed MTM NBN policy either.
There are no easy answers here.
The right answer, of course, is for Turnbull to admit to the public that he was wrong about the NBN and find a way — perhaps through allowing the NBN company to utilise its cheaper construction methods to pursue FTTP — to shift the NBN closer to its original policy.
But that will never happen.
Turnbull is too deeply committed to the MTM, and there are also the extensive agreements with Telstra and Optus to take account of. The only thing Turnbull — and Fifield — can do is attempt to brave it out and hope the leaks stop and that NBN Co shortly comes up with some more MTM wins.
It’s not a good look — in fact, it’s a terrible look — but from their perspective it’s likely the only real option they have. Such is the price of bad policy — it comes back to bite you again, and again, and again.