Foes liken NBN to Nth Korea, want it anyway

Whinging Telstra shareholders followed Malcolm Turnbull's lead, showing no shame in comparing the government-driven separation of Telstra to authoritarian regimes where citizens have few rights and live in perpetual fear of starvation, torture, imprisonment and death. As hypocritical complaints mount over the latest NBN schedule, one wonders whether we could put some perspective back into the NBN debate — or have anti-NBN crusaders jumped the shark for good?

Those who frequent internet forums would be aware of Godwin's Law, which more or less says that once a debate degrades enough to the stage where one person calls another person a Nazi, any chance for meaningful debate has been lost. Foaming-at-the-mouth anti-National Broadband Network (NBN) types haven't invoked the Nazis yet, but they've come close with hysterical, incorrect and frankly offensive discourse that overstates the NBN's problems and makes a mockery of their new complaints that they're not getting broadband fast enough.

Malcolm Turnbull has led the way here; our jet-setting shadow communications minister has left no junket unturned this year searching for ways to discredit the NBN. He has told us that the Chinese think it represents too much government intervention (nudge nudge wink wink); that New Zealand is not only beating us in rugby but also knows how to build a broadband network for one tenth of the price; that our broadband makes Greece look thrifty; that Germany and the UK are out-engineering us; that South Korea has the right idea with its cable roll-out; and that Labor's NBN policy is something that you'd expect in dictatorships like Cuba or North Korea.


It's hard to imagine that starving, repressed and terrified citizens of personality cults in North Korea, Libya, Cuba and elsewhere would care about telecoms structural separation. (Image by yeowatzup, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many Telstra shareholders joined the chorus during their NBN Co vote this week, with spittle flying and egos bristling as a stream of angry attendees vented their spleens at being forced to sign up for a free pass that will bolster their dividends for years to come. Our government had become a "dictatorship" on par with Libya and Iraq, furious shareholders shouted before voting for the deal anyway.

Seriously?

NBN opponents may have their concerns, but blithely evoking far-away dictatorships fundamentally disrespects the very real problems that citizens in those countries face — and I'm not talking about the high cost of global roaming or the price of skinny double-strength caramel mochaccinos here.

I doubt whether residents of Libya, for example, would be too concerned about the methods by which until recently the Gadaffi-controlled telco Libya Telecom & Technology was to be structurally separated; they're far more concerned with ensuring that they have access to running water, and that their various body parts stay connected to each other as a debilitating civil war rages around them.

Evoking those countries trivialises the plight of desperate refugees that have fled them for reasons far more important than their dislike of domestic telecommunications policy..

I don't think that Cubans would worry about which model was used in the fanciful separation of ETECSA when they're too busy struggling to pay for their GSM mobile phones, analog televisions and government-crippled internet access to worry about the nuances of telecommunications competition. We may whinge about poor 4G coverage, but Cubans have no 3G services at all, and the country only shut down its analog mobile network in 2009.

And I really find it hard to believe that the citizens of Pyongyang, who face constant intellectual subjugation and slow death by starvation, would have much of an opinion either way about structural separation. This is a state so heavily militarised and authoritarian, remember, that millions have never even heard of the internet, that you need a licence to buy a TV or a radio, that only 10 per cent of premises have a telephone and that mobile phones were flat-out banned until 2009.

The governments of Libya, North Korea, Cuba or any other struggling second-world dictatorship would never even contemplate telecommunications separation — or, for that matter, any of the thousands of other basic human freedoms that Australians take for granted. The free and open discourse enabled by Australian democracy, which has made demonising the prime minister and her Cabinet a national pastime, would be met with arrests, torture, prison or summary execution.

Mentioning those countries in the context of a debate about telecommunications is an embarrassment worthy of Godwin's Law. It denigrates the cause of human rights, normalises xenophobia and trivialises the plight of millions of desperate refugees who have fled those countries for reasons far more important than their dislike of domestic telecommunications policy. And, given that it comes as Telstra shareholders are handed a government-funded fillip the likes of which has never been seen, it reflects a loss of perspective that is simply disgraceful.

But wait; it gets worse.

As if it were possible, the situation got even more embarrassing this week for all involved, as knives were quickly drawn after new NBN roll-out plans showed that the network will not be completed by next year. Allegations of political bias flew thick and fast in this week's Senate Estimates hearing, where Liberal and Labor Senators spent hours attacking each other amidst allegations that Mike Quigley and Stephen Conroy had somehow conspired to pay back the Liberals for their constant attacks on the project and on Conroy.

Liberal policy requires that its members hate the NBN with a passion, but common sense drives its hypocritical representatives to complain loudly, and vent half-formed conspiracy theories, when their constituents are overlooked.

Paul Fletcher, who has lately taken on the generation of NBN FUD as a hobby, extended his run of misinformed press releases by rushing out yet another missive alleging that the NBN is "increasingly political" as evidenced by what he said was an obvious NBN Co bias towards Labor seats. "Every Tasmanian site — new or existing — is in a Labor or Independent electorate," Fletcher wrote.

The punch line to this joke is so funny and sad at the same time that I don't know whether Stephen Conroy was laughing or banging his head on the table when he delivered it. Because, of course, there are no Liberal electorates in Tasmania at all; the last Liberals were thrown out of the state in the 2007 election. Fletcher's supposed argument is nothing more than a modern version of the old where-do-they-bury-the-survivors joke.

If Labor was trying to win votes with the NBN, you'd think it would actually focus on marginal Coalition seats rather than only rewarding people who had already voted for the project.

Coming off as being equally silly is Victoria's Liberal Baillieu government — the same one, you may recall, that reversed the previous government's plan to boost NBN take-up by making the network an opt-out affair. State Technology Minister Gordon Rich-Phillips is now complaining that Victoria hasn't gotten its fair share, and wants Stephen Conroy to intervene to increase the percentage.

Imagine how that would go over: Conroy, who represents a Victorian electorate, would be keelhauled for giving preferential treatment to his own electorate, and the Coalition would beat its chest and rend its garments while crying out about NBN politics and demanding his resignation.

Even Labor MPs are whinging: Western Sydney representative Ed Husic, for one, hates that the new roll-out focuses on new housing estates and expanding existing NBN sites rather than servicing broadband-deprived suburbs in his electorate. Never mind that his electorate includes Doonside, one of the few areas to actually have NBN services, albeit in a greenfields site. Husic certainly wasn't complaining last month when he joined Conroy for a photo opportunity to trumpet the success of NBN Co in reaching the area.

Quigley, ever forbearing, was pressured by Senator Birmingham on the point, and argued that it was a red herring. I'd suggest that he's right — if Labor was trying to win votes with the NBN in the lead up to an election, you'd think it would actually prioritise marginal Coalition seats rather than only rewarding people who had already voted for the project.

Indeed, those alleging political favouritism fail to consider that if the government was to intentionally consider political affiliations — even to ensure that there's an even balance of Labor and Liberal seats — they would be playing the same breed of politics that they're being accused of doing already.

Ensuring that states get a number of sites proportional to their population, as Victoria's government is demanding, is equally problematic, because it would favour NSW and Victoria, leaving less-populous WA, NT, SA, ACT, Tasmania and northern Queensland waiting while heavily populated capital cities were wired up. Since one of the NBN's goals is to bring equitable access to the many markets that the private sector has ignored, stacking the deck in this way would be unacceptable.

Ultimately, everybody will enjoy the NBN and the benefits that it brings — even the Liberal voters and Telstra shareholders who slam the project in the name of Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il, but will happily collect dividends from the new opportunities that it gives Telstra. The hypocrisy is flying so thick and fast that perhaps someone should just call Julia Gillard a Nazi so that everybody can invoke Godwin's Law, write the one-eyed NBN haters out of the public debate altogether and just get on with it.

What do you think? Has opposition to the NBN simply jumped the shark? Or do we really have it as bad as they say?

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