commentary No matter how hard the Australian Labor Party tries, when it comes to the telecommunications sector it just keeps on shooting itself in the foot — a fact demonstrated starkly by Prime Minister Julia Gillard's appalling comments on the NBN over the past week.
Stephen Conroy and Julia Gillard
(Credit: NBN Co)
It was hard to ignore the sense of triumphalism in the air last Thursday morning when the Federal Government finally announced its long-awaited National Broadband Network contract with Telstra. The symbolism of the moment, after all, was writ large.
Churchill-like, Gillard repeated several times that she was "determined" the NBN will go ahead, "determined" to bring super-fast broadband to Australia and "determined", it appears, to look as though Labor is capable of sticking with one policy, at least, until the bitter end. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, for his own part, showed off his "special occasion" red Labor tie, reiterating the nation-building aspects of the NBN with his trademark overenthusiastic diction.
Finance Minister Penny Wong looked serenely on, staunchly safeguarding the public purse, while Telstra CEO David Thodey and NBN Co chief Mike Quigley step forward to vouchsafe the sacred trust that has been placed in them to maintain telecommunications services to every Australian ... or words to that effect. It was a publicity extravaganza that glistens with production values only otherwise found in the most high-profile stage events ... Andrew Lloyd Webber should take note.
It should have been enough for Gillard and her supporters to stop there. To justly accept plaudits for a deal that represents, after a decade, a final outcome to the botched deregulation of Australia's telecommunications sector. The holy grail, the separation of Telstra, is within reach, and better yet, we're getting universal fibre to boot.
But Gillard just couldn't help herself. Her gutter instincts rose to the fore and she indulged them, taking the opportunity to stick the boot into the Opposition. "The Opposition is determined to destroy the NBN," the Prime Minister said. "I anticipate the Opposition will go to the next election saying they'll dig the cables out of the ground."
Taken alone, Gillard's comments might be seen as just an isolated example of a Prime Minister who didn't quite understand what she was talking about. After all, nobody in their right mind would rip up brand new infrastructure once it had been laid, whether that infrastructure is a road or a fibre cable. You make use of it — or, in the worst case, sell it.
But Gillard blithely ploughed on.
Facing questions on the matter from one brave journalist, who pointed out that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had just that very morning stated that a coalition government would not dig up the NBN fibre, Gillard reiterated her comments.
The Prime Minister claimed Opposition Leader Abbott had given Turnbull instructions to "destroy" the NBN. "You destroy the NBN by ripping up this agreement, ripping the fibre out of the ground and keeping this nation in the past," she said.
And then, later in parliament that same day, Gillard continued (PDF). "If you are in the business of ripping the National Broadband Network out of the ground, then your relentless negativity is costing Australian families," she told the Coalition. Then later: "They want to rip the NBN out of the ground." The quote was repeated many times in that session of parliament — and Gillard continues to use the exact same words, again and again. Just this week, at an NBN launch in the Northern Territory, Gillard accused Abbott of wanting to "rip the fibre out of the ground".
Now there's just one problem with Gillard's claim: both logic and the Coalition itself indicate that it is simply untrue. There is no reason that a coalition government would order fibre-optic cable to be physically torn out of the ground if it took government. Quite aside from the fact that it would be a monumental waste of money to do so, it would involve a major construction effort.
Nextgen Networks, for example, has already constructed thousands of kilometres of fibre links across Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia as part of the $250 million NBN backhaul project. It would be, as Turnbull has pointed out, "ludicrous" to suggest that the infrastructure should be torn up, just as it would be ludicrous to tear up a major highway once it had been built.
It gets even more ludicrous when you consider the scale the NBN will have achieved by the time the next election comes around ... with several million premises in cities around Australia having received fibre to their front door. To suggest that any politician would want to physically disconnect millions of Australians from their fledgling fibre connection — with the previous copper network having likely already been removed in many cases — is worse than a bad joke. It's simply untrue.
Now, opinions vary as to what extent Gillard is or is not a fool in general. However, it is clear, given the ongoing nature of her "rip it up" comments targeted at the Coalition, that these remarks in particular are not coming off the cuff. They are a deliberate strategy designed to take advantage of the NBN's populism and undermine the Coalition's broadband credibility.
With a whole department full of broadband experts and a minister who is speedily becoming a walking encyclopaedia on the subject, there is no doubt that our Prime Minister has the resources to understand that no government, nay, nobody in their right mind, would "rip up" brand new telecommunications infrastructure.
The fact that she is publicly making statements that run contra to that expertise and understanding means she is comfortable misleading the Australian public. To label it as it should be labelled, Gillard's claims regarding the Coalition's plans for the NBN are a lie: a lie told deliberately and consciously in public with the aim of attacking her rivals.
The difficulty with this is that you simply cannot use a bald-faced lie to publicly undermine someone else's credibility. Ultimately, the only credibility you will undermine is your own.