Is Labor’s NBN tag-team helping or hurting its election message?

Summary:The dissolution of Julia Gillard's ministry saw Labor try a curious approach to replacing the ubiquitous Stephen Conroy: appointing four separate ministers to each spruik the NBN in their own way. A week away from the election, has this approach helped Labor's chances or hurt them?

If Stephen Conroy was to get any satisfaction from his ignominious resignation in June, it would have to be that, in the wake of his departure, Labor felt that he was doing so much, on so many fronts, that it took not one, not two, not three, but four ministers to replace him.

That decision was either incredibly risky – risking an irretrievably bifurcated message around the NBN in the runup to a critical election – or incredibly smart, allowing each member to bring his or her respective strengths to broaden the appeal and integrity of Labor’s NBN marketing strategy.

Hydra-JohnSingerSargent
When it comes to promoting the NBN, will Labor find that four heads are better than one? Image: John Singer Sargent, Public domain

Kate Lundy, after all, is easily the most respected politician we have when it comes to digital economy matters. Keen to bring such issues to a higher profile, she seems to have embraced her new role – as Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation and for the Digital Economy – with aplomb.

Just look at her media-release centre (now abridged because of the current caretaker mode), which as a scrapbook of her pre-election schedule is papered with releases about how the NBN is making the world a better place for Melbourne businesses, students in the ACT, Tasmanian, the Victoria Park, WA Digital Hub, homes in Goodna, restaurants and cafes everywhere, Moreton Bay local government, and more.

Husic, a young political firebrand best known for his largely ineffectual but highly inspiring crusade for better IT pricing, has been far quieter: his media site only shows enthusiasm over a mass NBN switchon in Tasmania, back on July 8.

Even Sharon Bird, who was brought into Albanese’s dream team to help spruik the party’s efforts in regional areas, has been busier: her release schedule celebrated NBN-related wins in Wollongong, Geraldton, Victoria Park, Mandurah, and Rockhampton.

That decision was either incredibly risky – risking an irretrievably bifurcated message around the NBN in the runup to a critical election – or incredibly smart, allowing each member to bring his or her respective strengths to broaden the appeal and integrity of Labor’s NBN marketing strategy.

Bird even went on the offensive against Turnbull and Luke Hartsuyker, who is effectively her opposition shadow, by accusing them of “deception” around the NBN and doing the same against Tony Abbott in Tasmania.

Albanese has also been busy, covering the metropolitan-area NBN launches in areas such as Brunswick, Strathfield, South Perth, Darwin, and even the rural area of Bendigo for good measure.

Conroy’s replacement also snaggled the announcement of a new NBN distribution hub that will employ 20 people, and took up the mantle of pressing Labor’s $5000-per-fibre-connection claim against the Coalition’s plan (that number has, reportedly, somehow increased to $50,000 in his latest curious statements). Clearly, Albo still gets to bag the big game.

With four ministers each championing the NBN cause in their own way, Labor has certainly spread its risk much thinner than it did with Conroy, who was the be-all and end-all when it came to spruiking the NBN.

That would have been a dangerous proposition for Albanese, who has already admitted that he's out of his technical depth after stepping into the broad and deep communications portfolio as an emergency. Lundy, Husic and Bird were clearly otherwise engaged, but their respective expertise can be nothing but a fillip for Albanese's heavily abridged NBN campaign run-up. 

This has in some ways helped Labor dance around Malcolm Turnbull’s constant opposition: while Albanese has taken on Conroy’s old pastime of taking on Turnbull in vitriolic and largely predictable televised debates, the other three ministers are happily walking the streets to promote Labor’s NBN cause. Turnbull can’t possibly keep up with all of them, Labor’s logic must have been, but it would be fun to watch him try.

With four ministers each championing the NBN cause in their own way, Labor has certainly spread its risk much thinner than it did with Conroy, who was the be-all and end-all when it came to spruiking the NBN.

And yet Turnbull has kept his eye on the prize, focusing on butting heads with Albanese and largely leaving Labor’s other NBN cheerleaders alone. This may be out of a habit developed during his regular clashes with Conroy, or because he is eager to develop a combative working relationship that might blossom into a role-reversal after the election (although I’d doubt Albanese will be eager to sit as communications shadow in such an instance).

Has Turnbull been fazed by Labor’s shock-and-awe NBN full-court press? Not really.

Has the move surfaced possible contenders for the communications and digital economy shadow ministry if Labor is relegated to Opposition come September 7? Most definitely. Indeed, feeling out candidates for a shadow ministry may well have been an ulterior motive of the many-minister approach. 

Will it make a difference in terms of the way voters perceive Labor’s NBN project? The jury is still out. Given the short timeframes involved, it’s unlikely that any amount of team playing would make a real difference at this point – in which case Labor’s NBN dream-team approach is simply too little, too late – and will simply go down as another miscalculation in what could end up as a disastrous Labor election bid.

What do you think? Has the abundance of NBN-related ministers helped or hurt Labor’s election-time message? And who will get the opposition-spokesperson hot potato if Labor loses the election?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government : AU, IT Priorities, Networking, Telcos

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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