Conroy is from Venus, Turnbull is from Mars

The real show around the NBN is the contrast between Turnbull's Mars-like war dances around Parliament House and the feel-good, loves-everybody, isn't-it-beautiful optimism of Conroy — the Venus in this little metaphor.

The pages of late 20th-century history are peppered with stories of Japanese "holdouts" who hid in jungles and on Pacific islands for decades after World War II, never knowing or believing it had actually finished. Judging by the way Malcolm Turnbull has been tilting at Labor's windmills since his appointment, it seems there is more than a little of the same going around the Coalition camp.

On the surface, Turnbull comes off as a better-versed technologist with credentials stretching back to the early days of Australia's internet. He is clearly a better foil for Stephen Conroy, who had a basically unopposed election run-up thanks to an invisible and utterly ineffective Tony Smith spruiking the Coalition policy. A policy that was conspicuous first in its absence, and then in its inadequacy.


(Credit: NASA)

It's surprising Abbott didn't let Turnbull loose on Conroy in the lead-up to the election so as to avoid the non-event that was Smith's opposition ministry — at least until you remember that Turnbull was probably still touchy about that whole leadership-challenge thing. Abbott could hardly have attacked Gillard over her political assassination of Kevin Rudd if a more-visible Turnbull reminded the media just how tenuous was Abbott's grip on his own party.

Make no mistake about it: Abbott is angry that "He Wuz Robbed", and he's going to do everything in his power to make Julia Gillard's life difficult over the next three years. Yet there is something fundamentally wrong about Abbott's opposition so far: far from positioning the Coalition as a healthy, robust and progressive opposition, Abbott's ministerial approach gives off the impression that the Coalition are still in election mode.

Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne made this very clear with his after-the-match revelation that the Liberals may change their broadband policy. Could someone please tell this man the election is over, and his side lost? The time to tweak the Coalition's policy would have been before the election. But after Abbott held that policy back until 11 days before the election and put it in the hands of a singularly unimpressive ministerial spokesperson, that was never going to happen.

Abbott's instructions to Turnbull suggest he is still very much at war with Labor, and that he wants nothing more than for Turnbull to shoot Labor's 'white elephant' NBN, make footstools out of its legs, spread its hide across the floor of his office and carve little ivory baubles from its tusks.

It goes without saying that the Coalition would revise its communications policy over the next three years. Yet for now, I'm not sure anybody cares about the Coalition's policies, or whether they are changing; they were rejected by the electorate (albeit by the slimmest of margins) and they are no longer relevant to the NBN discussion. The Opposition's role is no longer spruiking its proposed policy, or tweaking it to be more appealing or appropriate. Its primary role should be to focus on Labor's policy, ensuring that the NBN roll-out is subject to healthy scrutiny and a methodical system of checks and balances.

Yet Abbott's bellicose instructions to Turnbull suggest he wants nothing more than for Turnbull to shoot Labor's "white elephant" NBN, make footstools out of its legs, spread its hide across the floor of his office and carve little ivory baubles from its tusks. Just consider his efforts to charge Turnbull with "turning independents" to the Coalition's side and "demolishing" the project by blanketing it with scathing financial criticism of the type Turnbull seems to have no trouble dispatching on a moment's notice. Turnbull seems to relish the role, seizing on a UN report commending progressive NBN models, and slamming claims the NBN is as ambitious and necessary as the Snowy Mountains scheme.

There is something tired about Turnbull's constant, speculative financial analysis and his somewhat-rich claims that the NBN will have a net present value just half of its construction cost. We heard it through the election; we heard it through the caretaker period; and now, with the NBN a done deal, we're still hearing the same old arguments. The NBN is a business, Turnbull argues, and not a public good.

Even if you believe him, the numbers stack up far better than he allows. For example, nowhere does he consider the fact that actually building the NBN will create an estimated 25,000 jobs. At, say, $50,000 each over eight years of construction, that's $400,000 per job, or $10 billion of the estimated $26 billion government expenditure that will go straight into the working population's pockets. Never mind the flow-on effects as billions more of capex flow into local manufacturers and service providers; even if the NBN never carried a single byte of data, the jobs it will create will pay back nearly half the government's investment in what would effectively become a massive jobs stimulus package. Can that be all bad?

Turnbull isn't factoring intangibles into his tortured calculations, which show a stubborn determination to continue the election-time policy debate based on his simplistic back-of-the-envelope maths.

Those figures took me 15 seconds to derive, and they don't even begin to address the network's broader possibilities. Turnbull isn't factoring intangibles into his tortured calculations, which show a stubborn determination to continue the election-time policy debate based on simplistic back-of-the-envelope maths. This glaring simplicity is even losing traction with the traditionally Coalition-leaning business community, which now seems ready to take a leap of faith with Labor: Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry head Peter Anderson recently conceded (PDF) that business does recognise that, in the short term at least, there will be some costs which are not able to be returned in a direct way the instinct of the business community is that there can be a real productivity kick and benefit from getting on with the job.

In other words, even the biggest proponents of financial responsibility are willing to give Labor the benefit of the doubt, although they will be watching carefully. Which is a good thing.

So while Tony Smith may have spent most of the election on the dark side of the moon, the real show around the NBN will be the contrast between Turnbull's Mars-like war dances around Parliament House and the feel-good, loves-everybody, isn't-it-beautiful optimism of Conroy — the Venus in this little metaphor. And while it's understandable that the Coalition is annoyed about the election result, pro-NBN factions got more votes than those opposed to it, and it's going to proceed.

Turnbull can either stay on Mars, marginalising the Coalition's relevance and firing BBs into the side of Labor's "white elephant", or he can admit that the war is over; reconsider his attack; and find new ways to hold Labor to account.

After all, Conroy's biggest challenge is increasing Labor's engagement with the industries that the project will benefit; fostering the kind of thinking evident at the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society; and encouraging the faithful to join him in the smothering warmth of Venus. If Turnbull can't be part of that discussion, he will be as irrelevant to communications policy as Tony Smith was, and the Coalition will be left floating in space until the next election or beyond.

What do you think? Is Turnbull firing blanks at the NBN, or are his shots hitting true? What vector of attack will be most effective against Conroy? And is there really any point fighting the NBN any more?

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All