FttN NBN will leave a bad taste in voters' mouths

Summary:Incoming Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is taking the Coalition's rout of Labor as a mandate for FttN. Yet, while Labor's implosion has empowered him to do pretty much what he wants, that doesn't mean Australians are going to like it.

As a youngster, my grandmother was forever trying to trick me into eating liver. She tried cooking liver with onion, liver with gravy, liver with mushrooms and gravy and onion. But when pleas of "it's good for you" failed to get me to open my mouth, promises of chocolate to follow invariably did the trick.

Yet, even though I sometimes ate it, I still hate the taste of liver. To this day, I have never willingly eaten it.

PigsLiver-and-Onions
You'll learn to like the Coalition's NBN vision. No, really. Because it's good for you. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Fotoos VanRobin

A similar situation that now faces Australia as Malcolm Turnbull prepares to remove the word "opposition" from his title and begin administering death by a thousand cuts to Labor's fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout.

I am not convinced that the Coalition's pasting of the Labor government can be construed as a public vote against Labor's NBN — as much as an indictment of a disastrous government with which nearly every thinking Australian seemed just fed up — but you can bet your bottom dollar that an increasingly sanctimonious Turnbull will read it that way.

Consider his treatment of a massive online petition for him to reassess his position, ignoring the fact that its more than 200,000 signatures represent four times as many votes as he received in his own electorate of Wentworth.

This same Coalition government, which made a big noise out of its desire to get most government services online by 2017, has shown just how much it actually cares about online democracy by simply ignoring what is a rather large call to citizen action. Clearly, the Coalition's vision of online government is more about one-way service delivery than actually listening to the people.

Turnbull argues that the Coalition's policy was released early and discussed often as "one of the most prominent issues" (albeit one that the Liberal party hid from voters in its campaign materials).

This, of course, has led him to conclude that voters have given him the moral authority to eviscerate Labor's NBN. And while Turnbull could always do what many suggested was always his end game — by concluding that FttP is in fact the better alternative and could be done more cost effectively if it were just managed correctly (read: By Telstra) — I wouldn't hold my breath.

I am not convinced that the Coalition's pasting of the Labor government can be construed as a public vote against Labor's NBN, but you can bet your bottom dollar an increasingly sanctimonious Turnbull will read it that way. Consider his treatment of a massive online petition [whose] 200,000 signatures represent four times as many votes as Turnbull received in his own electorate of Wentworth.

Judging by what we've seen so far, his message remains quite clear: We may not like fibre to the node (FttN), but — chocolates or no chocolates — the Coalition is going to give it to us anyway.

But first, the recriminations. As Turnbull is sworn in to his new job, we can expect him to start dissecting the NBN rollout with the surgical and evidence-based precision he claimed he could not do from the opposition. His promise of a full review within 60 days seems hugely optimistic, but with a predetermined outcome and the report probably half-written already, it may be within Turnbull's grasp.

Of course, a properly conducted review would be carried out by an independent third party, and would likely take far longer than 60 days. But I don't think anybody is expecting real transparency during the process of unravelling Labor's NBN: Despite promising a "fully informed" ministry, Turnbull has already made it very clear what the outcome of any investigation will be.

After all, it will be his investigation. And in the Coalition's Star Chamber, the only conclusion will be that the current rollout is an unmitigated disaster that must be rescued in the name of economic probity and decency.

Don't get me wrong: It's not a bad thing that the existing NBN rollout be put under the microscope a bit — whatever your technological leanings, it's hard to deny that the project lurched ahead in such fits and starts this year, and was poisoned so much by Labor's pathetic infighting, that it would benefit from taking a step back.

A properly conducted review would be carried out by a totally independent third party, and would likely take far longer than 60 days. But Turnbull has already made it very clear what the outcome of any investigation will be. In the Coalition's Star Chamber, the only conclusion will be that the current rollout is an unmitigated disaster that must be rescued in the name of economic probity and decency.

By the time Anthony Albanese stepped in, the NBN effort had been battered and bruised so much that the departure of Mike Quigley was both inevitable and welcomed by those who felt it was simply time for new management at NBN Co. Indeed, at NBN Co and across the whole project, the election offers an invaluable inflection point to step back and air the whole thing out.

Many of the changes are preordained. For example, Turnbull has already indicated that he likes Telstra and Optus figurehead Ziggy Switkowski as the company's new head, which rightly brings with it flashbacks to an era when Telstra was left by the government to do basically whatever it wanted.

Turnbull, too, will be able to do basically whatever he wants to: with reluctant NBN advocate Anthony Albanese currently tied up fighting Bill Shorten for Labor party leadership, there is effectively no formal communications opposition in place and a paucity of potential candidates.

There is nobody in Labor better qualified to fight Turnbull on his changes to the NBN than Stephen Conroy. In Conroy's absence, whichever minister is appointed as Turnbull's counter will be coming off the back foot — so we can expect a wan and ineffectual opposition as Turnbull steamrolls the current NBN and brandishes his knife over the soft bellies of its politically exposed administrators.

Just what will emerge from the NBN review will of course be of great interest, and it may prove that things were as bad as Turnbull said — but once the finger pointing is done, Turnbull now faces the very real challenge of delivering everything he promised. And, onions or not, the whole process is likely to turn more than a few stomachs.

What do you think? Will Turnbull's ministry be as transparent and open as he has promised? Or will it be a vitriolic Star Chamber that ignores both the promise of FttP and the will of the many people who want it?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Broadband, Government : AU, Networking, Telstra

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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