Why Albo won’t win the NBN election debate

Summary:Election success depends not only on engaging voters, but on keeping them that way. Unless Anthony Albanese can transform the NBN election debate into something that resonates with voters – the general distrust of Telstra, for example – he risks losing their attention and handing advantage to Malcolm Turnbull.

One of my earliest childhood memories is from 1977, when – sitting in the local theatre to watch this exciting new movie called Star Wars – the intense trash compactor scene was rudely interrupted when the film literally broke, the screen was washed out in white, and the house lights came up.

The audience, despite being none the happier, stuck around – and, ten minutes later, the movie picked up more or less where it had left off. And, of course, it was worth it.

People will put up with a lot when they’re engaged and interested – but I suspect the politically dermacated and tedious deja-vu nature of the NBN debate is starting to test the patience of many voters. Just as in that theatre of my youth, the pace of the rollout has been repeatedly interrupted – by asbestos dramas, contractor complaints, Syntheo disaster, barely-hit targets, the departure of Stephen Conroy and Mike Quigley, and the ever-present Opposition bleating, just to name a few.

Albo-Wan-Kenobi
Albo-Wan Kenobi will need more than the Force to win voters in this pre-election NBN debate. Screen capture: David Braue

In the wake of his solid-but-uninspiring performance against Malcolm Turnbull last week, I wonder whether Anthony Albanese will be able to sustain voters’ interest as we careen towards September 7.

To do so, he’ll need to rework his NBN rhetoric to make the project sound interesting, engaging, and edge-of-the-seat riveting enough to convince voters to let him play it out to his intended end. He’ll also have to get better at countering Turnbull’s arguments that a Coalition NBN will do everything from saving us money to solving global warming and giving us fresher breath.

Albanese’s 100Mbps-1000Mbps confusion at the start of the discussion was a careless mistake that did little to strengthen his presence, and his failure to call out Turnbull on his $20,000 contention untruth was a significant missed opportunity.

Most surprising was the deputy PM’s utter failure to bring partisan politics into what became a mostly bland, overtechnical debate about minutiae that nobody in the real world cares about or even understands. Instead, he got caught up in a speeds-and-feeds battle in which both he and Turnbull flung around technical terms like “6 megs”, “CVC”, “one-gig”, and even “node” as though most viewers would intrinsically understand the lingo.

I hate to have to point this out, but the average punter has absolutely no idea what most of this means. Turnbull and Albanese were elected to represent the interests of their constituents, but moderator Emma Alberici was the one best representing the people when she intervened to stop the debate from getting too technical.

The successful party will be the one that gets voters to look past technology and capture their imaginations....If he wants to win the NBN debate, Albanese needs to stop parroting Labor’s well-worn NBN messaging and steer the discussion into the political arena where Turnbull would rightly be on the defensive.

Sure, the NBN debate is inherently technical, but the successful party will be the one that gets voters to look past technology and capture their imaginations. Otherwise, voters will tune out – and those that might have turned their backs on the Coalition’s earlier plans may not now see enough in it anymore to affect their vote.

If he wants to win the NBN debate, Albanese needs to stop parroting Labor’s well-worn NBN messaging and steer the discussion into the political arena where Turnbull would rightly be on the defensive.

Albanese should, for example, press Turnbull about the bald hypocrisy of the Coalition continuing to refuse its have its NBN plan costed despite doing so for nearly all of its other policies. Such costing is necessary to support the Coalition’s continued claims of superior financial credentials – but it instead supports Tony Abbott’s contention (AFR subscription required) that the focus of the election runup should be on policy rather than costings.

Given that most of the Coalition’s argument against Labor’s NBN has been on financial grounds, that sort of claim should ring hollow with anybody that has an interest in the NBN. Given that we were having the same discussion about a costing-phobic Coalition two years ago , Albanese should publicly speculate about why the Coalition STILL hasn’t managed to conduct said costings – and what that means for the type of ministry Turnbull would run if the Coalition is elected.

Turnbull's repeated answer – that further analysis is not necessary because the Coalition’s “careful analysis” (constructed from the start to discredit Labor with its $94b furphy) is more than detailed enough – should ring hollow with voters. Lacking corroboration by a legitimate analysis and costing, it is an insult to voters to whom Turnbull, like Abbott, is essentially expecting to be elected on a platform of “trust me”.

Without some modicum of independent validation, the Australian public can put no more weight into the Coalition’s NBN policy than it can put into Turnbull’s hypothetical-upon-hypothetical $94 billion claim. But the public do love a good sound bite, especially around election time – and the battle-hardened Turnbull knows this all too well.

Such points would make for delicious argy-bargy should Albanese seize upon them – although his “Coco Pops packet” comment did seem to annoy Turnbull – yet he continues to be drawn on technical details and the same old round-the-twist arguments that Turnbull has used for years to keep the opposition position alive.

Without some modicum of independent validation, the Australian public can put no more weight into the Coalition’s NBN policy than it can put into Turnbull’s hypothetical-upon-hypothetical $94 billion claim. But the public do love a good sound bite, especially around election time – and the battle-hardened Turnbull knows this all too well.

Most voters probably despise Telstra, even if they don’t know exactly why. Albanese should tap into this to talk about why Telstra needed to be contained and controlled – and why Labor's NBN offers a better chance of doing so.

He should construct and paint a narrative about the real reasons Labor has undertaken the NBN the way it did – the ones relating to Telstra’s decade of market abuse after it took advantage of the abject failure of John Howard’s profit-minded Coalition government to make Telstra do anything at all, about anything.

This failure not only held back real competition in broadband and pay TV as the company excluded competitors from exchanges, breaching competition rules , cancelling competitors’ wholesale orders, and so on.

Albanese should point out that the Coalition went to the 2010 election arguing against the separation of Telstra, and only relented when it was clear voters would brook its market abuses no longer.

He should make political ammunition out of Turnbull’s comments that he would have had Telstra build the NBN  and refute Turnbull’s claims, in a Fairfax-hosted Google Hangout this week, that Telstra has been “completely excluded from construction” on the NBN “largely for political reasons”. Given that Telstra has actually built part of the NBN and remains involved in nearly every aspect of its design, I think many would dispute that statement.

What Turnbull is kicking back against, perhaps, is the fact that his beloved Telstra – and I say “beloved” because the viability of the Coalition’s NBN plan relies entirely on Telstra’s largesse – has not been simply handed the keys to the NBN but has been, correctly, treated as one of many market players.

This is a good thing: the entire industry wants Telstra kept on a short leash , and in the few weeks remaining before the election Anthony Albanese needs to explain to Australia why this is necessary – and why Turnbull’s love affair with Telstra  would be hazardous to the cause of competition.

Most voters probably despise Telstra, even if they don’t know exactly why. Albanese should tap into this to talk about why Telstra needed to be contained and controlled – and why Labor's NBN offers a better chance of doing so.

Why the NBN will fix that situation by constructing a communications infrastructure that Telstra cannot control.

How the NBN isn’t about fibre or 100Mbps versus 1Gbps, but about ensuring every Australian has access to a competitive communications market.

How the whole reason Labor’s NBN is necessary, is because John Howard’s Coalition government fumbled the privatisation of Telstra and ignored the cause of telecoms competition in favour of maximising the revenues from its privatisation.

Why this has held back broadband development in Australia and left us falling increasingly behind the global curve when it comes to access to online services.

Why our exploding data consumption is already straining the seams of our existing broadband infrastructure.

Why relying on Telstra’s network is an intrinsically anti-consumer policy.

Last election, Tony Smith’s ineptitude and Tony Abbott’s apathy put the Coalition all out to sea when it came to broadband. This time around – under Turnbull’s capable hand, and at arm’s length from Abbott, the Coalition’s policy is close enough to Labor’s that most voters have probably already tuned out.

If Anthony Albanese is going to take ownership of this debate and prevent patrons from walking out of the theatre, he’s going to need to repaint it in terms that voters can relate to – and do it fast. Otherwise, he runs the risk of following in the footsteps of Obi-Wan Kenobi, simply shutting off his light sabre and waiting for the coup de grace.

What do you think? Are Albanese and Turnbull holding the attention of the electorate? Or is the NBN sliding towards becoming a bland non-issue in this election campaign?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Broadband, Fiber, Government : AU, IT Policies, Leadership, Networking, Telcos, Telstra

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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