Election rant 7: Abbott's lust

Tony Abbott is a man full of lust — and I'm not talking about the fun kind. Abbott's single-handed determination to get the Coalition into power and turn Australian telecoms back to the Howard era have led him to support a dead-end NBN strategy that is not only worse than Labor's, but is directly against the government's responsibility to execute future-focused leadership, create jobs and develop new opportunities for growth. But will voters remember that when they head to the polls?

commentary Make no mistake about it: Tony Abbott wants the Prime Ministership bad. Really bad. So bad, in fact, that he has apparently vowed to go without sleep until the election. One wonders where he'll find babies to kiss at 4am, but he and his minders are resourceful people.

He's no Riff Raff, but Tony Abbott is filled with lust ... for a telecoms time warp. (Credit: YouTube)

As we approach the last few hours before the election, it's worth considering just what has motivated Abbott to work so hard to win. While there are many angles from which to consider this question, it seems he has bought into the tendency among politicians to fixate on a politician they feel presided over a time when Everything Was Right — then to try to replicate and build on it.

I had a laugh at the way one person put it in response to my radio interview this week with Derryn Hinch:

The Liberal's policy is always to pretend it's 1953 and that anything that's happened since then is bad news. It worked for John Howard again and again but even survivalist Luddites use the interweb on an hourly basis in 2010 so Abbott's gang (and Hinch) look like fools and charlatans. Next thing they'll be advocating the rhythm method and intelligent design.

It seems like Tony Abbott has indeed fixated on John Howard, trying to set back the clock to the days before Labor came along and screwed everything up by saving Australia from the Global Financial Crisis, and moving quickly to build a communications network we wouldn't have to apologise for.

He wants the Prime Ministership so bad that he came out early to target what he argued was excessive spending by Labor. The NBN, with a massive cost that he was all too happy to reallocate to other policies, was an obvious bullseye and has remained perhaps the most significant point of differentiation throughout the campaign. Many voters are listening, continuing his strategy of saying $43 BILLION slowly and loudly to emphasise what a major project it is.

Can we really imagine spending $43 B-I-L-L-I-O-N on anything? Major projects, as we know, are always bound to fail.

Seriously, many coalition supporters still argue: can we really imagine spending $43 B-I-L-L-I-O-N on anything? Major projects, as we know, are always bound to fail. Just look at the Snowy Mountains Scheme: a complete failure that wasted 25 years of government budget for no purpose whatsoever. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932 and took 56 years to pay off: totally unnecessary. Or Medicare, a revolutionary idea that now manages $33 billion per year to deliver equal healthcare to every Australian: unmitigated disaster.

Campaigning on FUD

The fact is that major steps forward in the quality of our lives always require risks, and always require vision, and always require determination. Labor has these in spades, yet Abbott has worked hard to convince Australians he will save them the disaster of another ambitious, far-reaching program that will do for communications what Medicare did for healthcare: make it available to all at a consistent quality and price.

In pushing his case so hard, however, Abbott's lust for power has pushed his party across the line of moral and political indignation, to the point where they are actually basing their communications platform on untruths and misrepresentations that have made their campaign more about FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) than actual facts.

Consider the scaremongering Andrew Robb, Tony Smith and Abbott have done over Labor's failed insulation program and its expensive Building the Education Revolution program. These were designed, executed and managed by totally different people than those working for NBN Co, who, as I have pointed out, are not politicians or public servants but carefully managed telecommunications professionals who helped build the mobile and fixed communications networks you and I rely on every day.

The Coalition likes to portray the NBN as a big project in which we will systematically set $43 billion worth of bills on fire, one after another. In reality, that money will actually be going back into the pockets of everyday Australians.

These are not, as Robb put it, "talentless" people, but the Coalition has endorsed this view to support its argument that Labor can't do anything right — even though it's the Coalition that plans to saddle NBN Co with a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy to manage it.

Abbott's lust for the Prime Ministership has led him to wholeheartedly embrace a communications strategy that nearly everybody with any technical nous knows will not work as expected. He has offered gaps in understanding over the capabilities of wireless; a determination not to make what everybody in the industry agrees is a necessary step to move forward in the current regime, because that would be conceding Howard's market-driven policies did not produce the desired outcomes; and a roll-out timetable that most Australians still don't realise will not actually produce much until 2014.

The Coalition has even obfuscated technical facts about its own NBN, forgetting to mention not only the inherent problems in wireless but to acknowledge that ADSL's asymmetric design is intrinsically problematic for businesses which need two-way connections that they simply cannot get in today's market without it costing an arm and a leg. ADSL is a technological bear trap rather than an enabler of competition; click the above link and read GTR42's comments if you don't believe me: his company is spending $10,000 per month for a 2Mbps symmetric connection between its five offices.

The Coalition's policy ignores all of these facts, and more, for a cheap, politically driven-solution designed to fill in policy gaps rather than seriously addressing the fundamental failures in today's market. I've argued that Abbott and Smith must eye Labor's technically-superior, cashed-up network with more than a little envy because it promises to deliver so much.

Lust for strife

Formulation of the fibre NBN policy was a political masterstroke because it meant any coalition counterproposal would have come off as little more than a pale imitation. But Abbott didn't have to go so far in the other direction: they could have won far more support from industry by taking a more moderate position such as resurrecting Labor's original $4.7 billion fibre-to-the-node plan.

Doing so would, after all, have forced the Coalition to concede that Labor had a good idea and followed it with an even better one. But in rejecting these solutions, Abbott has showed that his lust for a return to the heydays of Howard's administration requires absolute unwillingness to compromise. Things were better in 2007, he's arguing, and he's going to lead us back there and start the clock again.

Abbott has sacrificed the interests of his National Party partners, and formulated policies that confirm he's more than willing to make a retrograde decision that is against Australia's best interests, just to get the Coalition back into power.

Paired with a lack of technical knowledge, Abbott came off as stunned by the backlash his policy created. Yet it's not even his self-confessed lack of technical knowledge that has done his platform the most disservice; it is the fact that his position is directly contrary to the interests of the Australian economy and the Australian people.

The Coalition, after all, likes to portray the NBN as a big project in which we will systematically set $43 billion worth of bills on fire, one after another. They argue that it's sunk capital that will not deliver any benefits in the future and will, in Malcolm Turnbull's curious economics, only deliver a net present value of $10 billion when done.

In reality — and even the most steadfast critic will have trouble denying this — that money will actually be going back into the pockets of everyday Australians. This will happen directly, in some cases — for example, in the form of salaries for the 25,000 or more Australians who will be employed to build the network or to manufacture hundreds of thousands of kilometres of domestically-produced fibre-optic cable — and indirectly, as savings in time and money for rural Australians who will no longer have to drive hours to capital cities so they can access healthcare, employment and education opportunities we in the cities take for granted. There is simply no better option on the table for making this happen.

The benefits will also flow throughout the industry, as innovative service providers can plan and build innovative services knowing that there's a ready market out there whose ability to consume those services won't be limited by where they live. Consider the example of Foxtel, which is currently available to only 25 per cent of Australia's homes. Foxtel is moving to offer its services over networks other than Telstra's, and it would be able to reach more than 90 per cent of homes under Labor's NBN. Yet Foxtel alone would bring the Coalition's wireless network to its knees.

In addition to all this, the government will have a unique saleable asset worth billions that can be divided and sold to private-sector interests or, as the Greens would prefer, kept as a government-run telco. Arguing that this network is not a national asset that will serve our interests for decades to come, is simply shortsighted and incorrect.

But it does serve Tony Abbott's political ambitions, and that is why the Coalition has stuck by its austere appraisal of Labor's NBN despite a hailstorm of criticism from people who know exactly why and how its proposal falls short. The Coalition knows this too, which is why it has brought in party heavyweights like Malcolm Turnbull to run interference for Abbott (an ironic twist, since it was Turnbull who was ousted to put Abbott as head of the Liberal Party).

They have bought the Coalition's endless smear campaign against Labor's NBN, arguing that today's broadband is good enough without realising that many Australians are still struggling by at dial-up internet speeds.

The troublesome thing is that many voters are lustful, too: they have bought the Coalition's endless smear campaign against Labor's NBN, arguing that today's broadband is good enough without realising that many Australians are still struggling by at dial-up internet speeds. They buy into arguments that wireless is good enough without understanding the difference between the 3G they use every day and the WiMax or LTE that the Coalition is proposing. They say that Skype already offers video-conferencing without ever having stepped into a telemedicine suite to see the kind of video-conferencing that doctors, for example, can benefit from if they only have enough bandwidth.

Indeed, many voters are lusting for change no matter what facts are presented. Tony Abbott's own lust for power has led him to run a dirty campaign against Labor's NBN, disregarding all facts and chance at moderation to promote a policy that will indeed bring us back to the days of the Howard administration. He has sacrificed the interests of his National Party partners, and formulated policies that confirm he's more than willing to make a retrograde decision that is against Australia's best interests, just to get the Coalition back into power. Only if he wins tomorrow will voters realise the magnitude of the opportunity that Abbott's lust has cost them and they'll have to wait over three long years to see if Australia will ever have this opportunity again.

This is the final part of a series of seven election rants, one for each deadly sin, aired each business day until the big day. Renai LeMay is writing a reply to each of the rants, playing devil's advocate.

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