Turnbull's media crusade masks Libs' NBN incoherence

Summary:Turnbull is playing the man, not the ball. But the media is not his problem; his policy is the problem. And no amount of bluster will change the fact that there are serious, unanswered questions around the Coalition's alternative policy.

It must have made sense when Malcolm Turnbull wrote his speech, but I couldn't help laughing a bit as he fronted the recent CommsDay Melbourne Congress industry forum and named ABC Technology and Games editor Nick Ross, Delimiter editor Renai LeMay, and myself as some sort of journalistic axis of evil for being openly critical of his fibre-to-the-node (FttN) plan.

Malcolm Turnbull
(Credit: David Braue/ZDNet)

It wasn't the last time that Turnbull took on members of the telecoms media, who have persisted in critically evaluating his many spurious claims about FttN since he was appointed to his current role just over two years ago.

Journalists are using all available evidence to explore the merits of a party line that — while far from the disaster of the Coalition's 2010 NBN election policy — is still based around FttN and attendant challenges that Turnbull repeatedly refuses to address.

Despite repeated entreaties to do so, Turnbull has instead decided to complain, repeatedly and loudly, about the technology media — even at events that are completely unrelated to the NBN.

"Is there anyone from the technology media here, by the way, anyone?" he asked at a recent speech at an event by angel-investment fund Innovation Bay. "No? We are so let down," he continued. "Again, I'm going to complain about the media."

Complaining about the technology media has become a part-time job for Turnbull, who feeds his promise of delivering broadband faster, cheaper, and sooner to mainstream media outlets that generally lack the technical knowledge to ask him real questions about his policy.

This may fly with the likes of sympathetic radio and print personalities, but Australia's community technology journalists long ago committed to keeping the NBN fight fair and fact based. Turnbull clearly sees them as a nuisance, but I suspect that most Australians would be happy to be served by journalists that refuse to blindly accept political spin, and have the technological nous to keep both sides on their toes.

Part of this effort has been to try to get Turnbull to fill in the many blanks in his policy, but doing so has been like pulling teeth. I wrote to Turnbull's media representative after the CommsDay event to seek further comment, and have still received no reply. When Turnbull or his media representative occasionally do see fit to respond, the most politely worded emails draw curt, venomous responses.

Usually, my enquiries are met with silence. When Turnbull does deign to reply, his answers are entirely non-responsive; it took him four full months to come up with thoroughly useless answers to questions posed by industry blog Delimiter on July 30.

It's always a lot easier to talk about people who aren't in the room. But whether they are there or not doesn't make your arguments any more persuasive.

Turnbull's speeches say only a bit more; for example, his CommsDay Melbourne Congress address, in which he said that he would "rather talk about something other than the NBN," but restated his arguments for the record.

One of them related to the NBN Co-Telstra agreement that will maintain industry Universal Service Obligation (USO) payments to preserve Telstra's copper network in rural areas while the NBN transition is underway. Turnbull also argued that an FttN architecture would replace exchange-to-node copper with fibre in a move that he said would alleviate many of the line-quality problems flagged by Ross and many others.

"I have never seen this point acknowledged by the likes of David Braue, Nick Ross, Renai Le May, or the other so-called specialist commentators in this space," Turnbull said in his speech.

It's always a lot easier to talk about people who aren't in the room. But whether they are there or not doesn't make your arguments any more persuasive. After all, USO costs are nothing new; the industry has paid AU$145 million in annual USO levies for years, most heavily by Telstra, because of its relative market size.

They will also likely be there under a coalition NBN, which relies intrinsically on a working copper network. Ditto Labor's plan (PDF) , which will shift those costs to TUSMA, a new legislative body that will manage USO funds as well as paying Telstra up to AU$230 million per year to keep the copper working and provide voice services as a retailer of last resort. With NBN-era competition likely to increase the number of active telcos, each telco may end up paying less for the USO as the industry-wide revenue split readjusts itself for the NBN.

Yes, it's a 20-year commitment. But until the last copper connection is switched off, someone will be paying for the network's upkeep. This is hardly news.

Were he truly committed to proving his FttN policy correct, surely Turnbull could go to the industry to get some realistic estimates of the work involved in an FttN project, and to assemble a realistic assessment of the costs that a coalition government would face in implementing Turnbull's FttN. Surely, he could get indicative costings from the US and European carriers that he regularly floats as FttN paragons.

Yes, it's a 20-year commitment. But until the last copper connection is switched off, someone will be paying for the network's upkeep. This is hardly news.

But that seems to be too much to ask of a party seeking to be elected on the basis of policies that it repeatedly refuses to substantiate. Turnbull finds it easier to just blame the media, recently bagging the ABC's Lateline, on which he debated with Stephen Conroy, as "missing the point."

Turnbull has also attacked Ross' site as offering "relentless propaganda" in support of the NBN; blasted what he calls "partisan ideology" from "apologists for the NBN"; and labelled the tech media as "parochial," "unbelievably uninformed," and filled with NBN "cheerleaders" spouting "terribly, terribly ill-informed" commentary.

Turnbull has proven himself to be that particular type of politician who, when he has run out of defensible facts, shifts strategy and begins to target not the policy, but the people he sees as its proponents. Rather than dealing in facts and genuine debate, Turnbull is instead opting to deal in vagaries, insinuations, and character assassinations. He attacks critics who are absent, withholds crucial facts that would properly inform the debate, and is now all but refusing to engage with those who are anything but bloodthirsty enemies of Labor and its NBN.

He is playing the man, not the ball.

But the media is not his problem; his policy is the problem. And no amount of bluster will change the fact that there are serious, unanswered questions around the Coalition's alternative policy that must be answered before an expensive, technically complex change of NBN course is ordered. Without these details, by next year, the NBN will not be as big of an election issue as many believe; no, Labor's NBN will be irreversible and imminent, if only because the Coalition has not yet provided a real reason to make it otherwise.

What do you think? Is Turnbull's assessment of the media correct? Has he gained the high moral ground? Should he be providing more useful information to foster a more productive NBN debate? Or does he have the right to only release the information he wants, and only to a sympathetic media?

Topics: NBN, Government : AU, 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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