It is two weeks now since I challenged Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal counterparts to stop fighting the NBN by parroting empty claims that the money would be better spent on transport infrastructure. I was, therefore, happy to see Abbott repeat his declaration that, if elected, he would in fact use NBN funds to bolster Infrastructure within Australia, and build out new roads, rail links and ports.
While it's probably overstating things to suggest that this little tail had anything to do with wagging the big dog that is the Liberals' policy platform, it's nice to know that they're finally recognising the need to be a little less vague. You know, a little bit. But a whole lot more detail wouldn't hurt anything — except, perhaps, by revealing underlying shortcomings in the Liberals' economic credibility.
They have nothing to lose, and nothing to gain, from sneaky election-time posturing and non-information. After all, it's no longer election time, and Labor has made its own strategy exceedingly clear. So, despite Tony Abbott's enduring ability to draw media attention to his anti-Labor arguments, we are no longer choosing between two visions for the NBN. The die is cast, the horse out of the barn. And — assuming that the NBN Co deal with Telstra passes the company's shareholders and other relevant hurdles, which by some accounts could be a huge "if" — the NBN is set for at least two years of momentum-building before its next major reckoning.
In the meantime, an increasingly introspective media this week seemed willing to step away from its incessant Labor-bashing, and instead explore the curious situation in which Abbott has been able to sway public opinion based solely on the power of his own rhetoric. The media has been lapping it up, but the one-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd's political execution seems to have flipped a switch of self-awareness, Hangover-style, about just how bad the situation had become. ABC's Malcolm Farnsworth summed it up beautifully: "One good thing came out of the orgy of Gillard and Rudd anniversary remembrances last week. The 2010 election campaign finally ended."
This navel-gazing, indeed, seems to have finally led to a subtle change in tack on the Liberals' part, as they grudgingly concede that rolling back the NBN is no longer really on the agenda; their strategy must, by extension, become one of accommodation, and no longer of blind resistance. The NBN is going to happen, in one form or another.
The Greens have shown little tolerance for Abbott's NBN negativity, and with a stronger presence, they will be in a position to pull Labor away from the skin-of-their-teeth victories that have made the fight for the NBN so politically nasty for so long.
Of course, the ascension of the Greens in the Senate tomorrow won't help the Liberals' moods one whit. The Greens have shown little tolerance for Abbott's NBN negativity, and with a stronger presence, they will be in a position to pull Labor away from the skin-of-their-teeth victories that have made the fight for the NBN so politically nasty for so long. Heck, it's entirely possible that Gillard has been simply been gritting her teeth and waiting for the change of power so she can get on with her agenda. Or, as the case may be, Bob's.
What's worse for Abbott, the media — fatigued by Liberal negativity — will be all over the Greens to see just what they're going to do; Abbott will become little more than an observer in Canberra's looming three-way. It will be a strange new world, but however you feel about the new political reality coming into play tomorrow, there's no discounting its likely effect on the NBN. Abbott's Liberals will move from a barely-minority party to one that can no longer pretend it's anything but in opposition — and I'd suggest that this might be a good time for the party to revisit and clarify its policies on transport, the NBN and so on.
Fully costed, the Liberals could very well avoid making themselves look like asses again, come 2013. Julia Gillard may be suffering in the polls now, but, assuming she's able to work with de facto deputy PM Bob Brown to firm up the way forward, two years from now, Australia is likely to have a clearer carbon-pricing policy, and some sort of resolution to the boat-people issue.
It is also, if increasing signs of life are any indication, likely to have a fast-moving NBN roll-out that has moved well beyond the political contentiousness of the past few years and become nothing more than an exercise in cookie-cutter logistics: dig trench, lay fibre, repeat. If it manages to reach this stage, while avoiding scandal and keeping costs in check, Abbott's scaremongering is simply going to fall flat with an electorate that should by all rights have moved on.
Do not, of course, expect Abbott, or his likely replacement Malcolm Turnbull, to go quietly. Just as they've made a firm commitment to funding infrastructure, the party would strengthen its argument by spending the next two years to draw up a clear plan for an alternative NBN.
As I and others have said in the past, the fibre to the node (FttN) architecture has its own merits, although it, too, has its costs. Yet, it would also — and Turnbull has not really addressed this point — require the passage of a comprehensive government agreement with Telstra to ensure that the rest of the market can get access to the company's decaying copper network.
This sort of negotiation takes guts of steel, a certain amount of political flexibility, and the leverage provided by a heavy-handed legislative determination that, under Labor's watch, finally proved to Telstra that it needed to come to the table. Would Abbott and Turnbull be made of sterner stuff?
One wonders just what Turnbull would do about Telstra were his party able to seize power in 2013 and go about the process of dismantling the NBN. Could he get it back to the negotiating table? Would he have the steely nerve to author an enforceable, comprehensive deal that would not only separate Telstra but also guarantee the rest of the industry access to its copper last-mile connections? Could he live up to his chest-beating pronouncements that Labor has given Telstra a "very soft ride"? Or would the resolve of the private sector-friendly Liberals collapse in a puff smoke at the first hurdle, when it became clear that the party's FttN policy cannot be delivered without subduing Telstra all over again?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Abbott's proclamation is that it shows he isn't actually afraid of spending money, which you might have inferred from his constant harping.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Abbott's proclamation is that it shows he isn't actually afraid of spending money, which you might have inferred from his constant harping on about the many billions involved in building Labor's NBN.
No, he is just as happy to spend billions as Labor; it's just that his she'll-be-right mindset believes that it's not worth spending billions to modernise Australia's communications infrastructure. And while Labor tries to contain pollution by pricing it out of the business environment, Abbott wants to make it easier for good, old-fashioned, smoke-belching trucks to power their way between and around capital cities with even more determination and speed than they do already.
While there is no question that effective road and rail links are important to our economy, the Coalition's clearly stated policy raises several important questions. For example: how much spending, and where, will this initiative involve? How will the Coalition frame the cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) that must necessarily accompany such massive spending? And how, after the government has paid billions in cancellation penalties and thrown the NBN-ready telecommunications industry into a death spiral of job layoffs and contractor closures, will he ever right the market again?
The mind boggles with the possibilities, and this would be a great time for Abbott and Turnbull, who have shown time and again that they're more about the sizzle than the sausage, to front up with some hard details and policies that we can use to debate the merits of their communications vision. If the NBN truly is as rotten as they say, the whole country will know exactly which is the best way to move forward when the Liberals' vision is taken to the polls two years from now.
What do you think? Did the Telstra deal eliminate the Liberals' moral authority to fight for an NBN alternative? Could they, realistically, steer the NBN towards an FttN architecture given our very real market constraints, government obligations and need to negotiate with Telstra? Or should they just accept the NBN as a done deal, and revisit it as part of a broader policy package in 2013?