Libs go through the NBN looking glass

Summary:Malcolm Turnbull's first official speech as shadow communications minister seemed to reverse coalition policy on two major points and suggested the party is either still finding its policy footing, or fragmenting as breakaway conservative pollies jump onto the fibre bandwagon.

What a difference a few days make. This week has seen a dramatic softening of anti-NBN rhetoric on the part of the Liberals, who backed away from using blunt jabs to slam Labor's NBN, to grudgingly conceding that the NBN may well be good policy.

A properly conducted cost-benefit analysis (CBA) finding the NBN was viable would, Turnbull admitted, be "very, very persuasive" and "would really inform the debate". And, after what appears to have been a very informational meeting with Quigley, Turnbull even conceded that separating Telstra could be OK: "There is not an end to monopoly; there is simply an end to vertical integration," he said. "In response, we must recognise that if vertical integration is indeed the problem, then a structural or functional separation is the answer."

This is a stunning backflip for the Coalition and Turnbull, cognisant of this, tried to sneak it past the throng of journalists by claiming the Liberals remained supportive of telecommunications reform, as predecessor Tony Smith had made clear.

The thing is: a pre-election Smith didn't support the legislation entirely; he was very clear that the Coalition supported every principle of that legislation except the separation of Telstra. "We're not going to break up Telstra," Smith said in the much-vaunted Election Communication Forum 2010 just before the election (skip to 30:30 in this video). "Telstra was sold on a vertically integrated basis it was sold to shareholders in good faith... Our position on Telstra has been very clear."

Well, it's not any more. Turnbull has changed his posture in the debate somewhat and has significantly changed the flavour of the discussion around the NBN. He was still sceptical of Labor's plans — and he should be — but the CommsDay speech saw Turnbull clearly outline his case, back his arguments with nearly accurate figures and technical claims, and generally make a much better impression than he has done previously. The "Mars-like war dances" I labelled him as conducting, just a fortnight ago, have given way to a more carefully measured two-step that much better reflects the Opposition's need to be realistic about the situation.

The CommsDay speech saw Turnbull clearly outline his case, back his arguments with nearly accurate figures and technical claims, and generally make a much better impression than he has done previously.

Claims that Labor is framing public debate over the NBN as "a series of caricatures and false dichotomies" may have sent Stephen "spams and scams through the portal" Conroy scrambling for a dictionary, but Turnbull has clearly decided a more measured plan of resistance is going to serve his purpose better than FUD and scaremongering.

Yet as the week drew to a close, there were signs some Liberal Party types had taken the mantle of reform a bit too far. Brisbane's Liberal National Party mayor Campbell Newman, for one, has decided to push ahead with a Brisbane-wide fibre-to-the-sewer (FTTS) network that at once supports the premise behind Labor's fibre-based NBN architecture, threatens the NBN's primacy, supports the Liberals' private-sector philosophy, and degrades the Liberals' argument that fibre to the premises is a bet on the wrong horse.

Whatever the policy implications, the most important aspect of the Brisbane change is that, over the past week, conservative party-room politics seem to have given way to a new-found pragmatism around the NBN. Look at the claims by Victorian Shadow IT Minister Gordon Rich-Phillips, who said a state Liberal government would pick up the NBN and run with it if it's elected next month. "If Canberra wants to spend the money we're happy to take it," Rich-Phillips said.

And all this, without any call for a CBA. Huh?

Of course, the Victorian Liberals would have to say that a day after the current Labor government held the NBN as a shining gift and unveiled a $110 million ICT Action Plan in which ICT Minister John Lenders said the word "NBN" what seemed to be dozens of times.

After 18 months of baying for an NBN CBA and fiercely opposing the break-up of Telstra, it now seems to be acceptable Liberal Party policy to accept the NBN's inevitability, let the Commonwealth Government worry about paying for it and get on with figuring out ways to make the most of it.

All this seems to add up to a stunning turnaround in Liberal Party rhetoric. After 18 months of baying for an NBN CBA and fiercely opposing the break-up of Telstra, it now seems to be acceptable Liberal Party policy to accept the NBN's inevitability, let the Commonwealth Government worry about paying for it and get on with figuring out ways to make the most of it.

A CBA could very well follow once NBN Co releases its own internal CBA to the government, or maybe not. Either way, the week finished with a certain inevitability about the NBN that wasn't there a week ago. ACCC head Graeme Samuels has most recently come to the party, saying there is no need for a CBA at all when the public good is at stake.

If a CBA is optional, Telstra can be separated, and fibre is a good thing — then it seems the Coalition is finally prepared to adjust its role not to agitating for its own NBN policy, but to providing robust checks and balances on a project that everybody else now feels is inevitable.

I wrote earlier this week that Turnbull should "stop trying to stop the NBN, and focus on making sure it's done correctly — rather than not done at all". They could certainly surprise us again, but as the week draws to a close it appears the Coalition has turned a very important corner that should lead to more productive debate and better transparency around the NBN than ever before.

What do you think? Are we seeing the new Liberal mentality here? Or was Turnbull just choosing words carefully for his big debut?

Topics: NBN, Broadband

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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