Avoiding the Lib's ghost of broadband past

As the Liberal Party mulls over the contents of a report that dissected its failings in the 2010 Election campaign, one being the lacklustre alternate broadband policy, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is preparing to shop the party's current version of that policy to business groups tomorrow.

As the Liberal Party mulls over the contents of a report that dissected its failings in the 2010 Election campaign, one being the lacklustre alternate broadband policy, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is preparing to shop the party's current version of that policy to business groups tomorrow.

There is no denying that broadband was a deciding factor in the 2010 Federal Election. When siding with Labor over the Coalition, Independent MP Tony Windsor said broadband had been a key factor in his decision.

However, while Labor Communications Minister Stephen Conroy pushed his NBN policy right from the start, including a launch of commercial services in Tasmania, the Coalition's communications spokesperson Tony Smith waited until just 11 days before the election — and mere hours before an ICT policy debate between Labor, the Coalition and the Greens — to announce the Liberal Party's alternative $6 billion policy.

In a TV interview the night following the debate, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was also unable to explain the Coalition's broadband policy in detail, telling 7:30 Report host Kerry O'Brien that he was "no tech-head".

Although these blunders didn't spawn a recommendation for improvement in an internal party report (PDF) into the 2010 election campaign (which was released earlier this week by former Howard government minister Peter Reith), it did point to a report by Sydney academic Julian Leeser who had been critical of the party's handling of broadband policy during the election campaign.

"The broadband policy was written at the last minute without a set of Tasmanian eyes cast over it. The party needs to make a clear and unambiguous statement about its intentions on broadband infrastructure in Tasmania in the future," Leeser was quoted as saying in his report.

According to Leeser, the NBN was seen as being a boost to Tasmania, which is normally behind in receiving new technology. It was also seen as helping the local economy with jobs and being a boost in tourism for the area. Reith said that the lack of a decent policy cost the party the seat of Bass, which was retained by Labor under new MP Geoff Lyons.

"If we had negated NBN and offered, in a timely way, a decent Tasmanian package, Bass might have been a win instead of a loss," he said.

In the aftermath of the election defeat, Abbott dumped Smith as shadow communications minister in favour of former Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull, who was tasked by Abbott to "demolish the government" on broadband policy. Since then, Turnbull has pursued the government relentlessly on broadband policy, repeatedly calling for a cost-benefit analysis for the network, as well as unsuccessfully moving a number of amendments to every piece of NBN-related legislation to enter parliament since the election.

Although it is still over two years until Australia will most likely go to the ballot box again, the Coalition has been in campaigning mode. Over the time Turnbull has had in the hot seat, he's debated many policy points. He's also watched as the NBN Co has signed contracts with companies to roll out the network, admitting that each contract and the government's legislation for the project made it harder to unravel the network plans. He said that his party would subject the network to a cost-benefit analysis and would likely shift to a fibre-to-the-node network in a number of areas, relying on Telstra's existing copper network from the node to the home.

Tomorrow Turnbull is set to pitch the policy to some of the 800 business groups that are members of the Community for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) in Sydney. According to CEDA, Turnbull "will present and reinforce the Opposition's policy position and alternatives to achieve affordable and universal broadband service".

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