Shooting ourselves in the NBN

Summary:There is something almost zombie-esque about the photo accompanying The Australian's account of Tony Abbott's parliamentary antics on Monday. It's an action photo in which Abbott is swooping in on his enemies, mouth agape, eyes keenly focused on the political victims he so badly wants to destroy.

There is something almost zombie-esque about the photo accompanying The Australian's account of Tony Abbott's parliamentary antics on Monday. It's an action photo in which Abbott is swooping in on his enemies, mouth agape, eyes keenly focused on the political victims he so badly wants to destroy.

What a pity for him that it was all for naught. When the dust settled, Abbott was forced to settle for hours of absolutely pointless, time-wasting debate as to whether the National Broadband Network (NBN) legislation should be debated on the extra day allocated for debating it.

What was supposed to be an intensive working day became little more than a playground brawl as the Coalition, which seems to be absolutely fresh out of ideas and is now simply trying to block the NBN through inertia alone, tried trick after trick to run out the clock. "How absurd it is for this house to be asked to deliberate on this legislation and finalise this legislation this morning when we have only had the amendments over the weekend," Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered, apparently without noting the pot-and-kettle irony of calling the debate "absurd" when it was his own party that offered voters and the industry just ten days to absorb its NBN policy before the last election.


Pollies have been managing the NBN debate with the demeanour of a gang brawl and the effectiveness of a two-legged stool. (US Navy image by USMC, public domain)

Sure, Conroy could have provided more notice of his proposed amendments, and sure, that would have given the Coalition more time to try and come up with yet more ways to spell F-I-L-I-B-U-S-T-E-R. Yet Canberra and its merry band of parliamentarians have always been actors in the theatres of the absurd: Conroy also, you will recall, held back on the release of the NBN business plan until just a few days before Christmas, when most people who care are already well-ensconced in holiday mode and coverage is guaranteed to be less than usual. And as recently as last week, NSW Labor waited until two days before the state election to release its ICT policy. Of course, by then nobody cared anyways.

This is the nature of the politics-by-ambush that passes for reasoned decision making in our current political climate. Time and again, the Coalition has shown it will stop at nothing to smear anything to do with the NBN — but in debates like this, the whole thing gets strangely personal and really starts to ring hollow. By the end of the Coalition's day of posturing, even the party's putative allies were rubbing their foreheads and shaking their heads in disbelief at the ridiculousness of it all.

The taunts came thick and fast from both sides of the political fence, as the battle royale between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard — fought by proxy through their respective communications spokespeople — turned into an ugly schoolyard brawl that spilled across the weekend and from the Senate to the House.

By the end of the Coalition's day of posturing, even the party's putative allies were rubbing their foreheads and shaking their heads in disbelief at the ridiculousness of it all.

Sure, we expect heated debate in parliament, but when the pollies embark on tangential political grandstanding to hijack that debate it's hard not to feel a bit disappointed that our pollies can't use words better. The net result is something that resembles a Year 6 playground fight rather than a venue for productive debate.

Consider Liberal senator Simon Birmingham telling Conroy he's "stuffing the chamber around" and that the telecommunications industry is "not your plaything". Like the schoolyard nerd who wants everyone to stop fighting while he postulates some stinging verbal attack, he screwed up his face and came out with a real zinger: "It becomes clear that [Conroy] couldn't manage to get a ride at Disneyland if he had to try," he said, and probably felt very smug and satisfied even though he sounded like a right dill.

Turnbull, an intelligent and often eloquent man who has shown himself very capable of using big words when he wants to, was right in there with them, attacking what he called an "incompetent" Stephen Conroy. If Abbott and Gillard are in the centre of the ring, Conroy and Turnbull are definitely their seconds.

Then there was Luke Hartsuyker, the Nationals representative who has occasionally intervened in the NBN debate to vilify the largely ex-Nationals independents as Labor sellouts. Rob Oakeshott copped accusations of "shameless hypocrisy and inconsistency" from Hartsuyker, who seems to be the one that stands behind the schoolyard bully, saying "yeah" in a nasty tone to every insult the bully hurls at his opponent.

Rob Windsor came out explaining why the Coalition hadn't been able to convince him to renege on his deal with Labor over the NBN, while Abbott inferred that Windsor's wishes ran contrary to the desires of NSW's apparently Liberal-loving populace. In our little analogy, Windsor is the one who organises Dungeons & Dragons competitions during lunchtime and calmly gathers his stuff together after the popular kids come running through the middle of the game and kick dice and papers into the air.

And behind it all is Stephen Conroy, who has hardly shown himself to be the picture of openness throughout his tenure. He certainly did himself few favours by waiting until last Wednesday night to table two dozen amendments to the NBN legislation, addressing the various criticisms that have been raised by political and industry opponents over the past few weeks and months. With a stoicism that paints him as the victim of Abbott's continued taunts, Conroy stays on message and keeps his fingers in his ears as the furies of industry and political opponents circle around him.

The NBN legislation passed, of course, as it was always going to and always needed to. A few small victories were won as some of the government's amendments were knocked back and others accepted. Tony Abbott spent half a working day arguing there was no way the House could get through the amendments in a single day — and Malcolm Turnbull, curiously, argued that it wasn't even necessary for the amendments to be considered any time soon.

In our little analogy, Windsor is the one who organises Dungeons & Dragons competitions during lunchtime and calmly gathers his stuff together after the popular kids come running through the middle of the game and kick dice and papers into the air.

Despite their fears, our political representatives managed just fine.

Interestingly, the only one not making a stink was Telstra, with David Thodey indicating at this week's Communications Day Summit that the company is happy enough with the amendments and that they are "in the spirit of what was originally said" when the Labor government announced its NBN plans all those years ago. That's right: even Telstra wants the legislation passed, if only because it will provide the legislative certainty the company has long craved. Maintaining a combative position at this juncture simply will get Telstra nowhere fast, and Thodey knows it.

Yet if even Telstra wants the legislation to go ahead — well, what exactly are Tony Abbott's Liberals trying to achieve?

It's not as if his out-of-left-field attempts to unseat Julia Gillard will ever work; nor should they. Just as Telstra wants certainty in the NBN, the whole country would benefit from some certainty around this process so we can just get on with things. Yet whether you consider it high entertainment or just shameless bully-boy tactics that leave the cause of the NBN in the background of pointless political posturing, it appears we're all going to have to continue enduring this sort of ridiculous behaviour from our elected representatives for the next nine years. Democracy deserves better.

Who's in the right? Should Conroy be more forthcoming and Abbott less combative — or should we just expect no better from this whole debate?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government : AU

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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