Rudd has put the NBN in mortal danger

Rudd has put the NBN in mortal danger

Summary: As the Labor leadership hurtles towards a flashpoint, it's becoming increasingly likely that the party will not survive the 2013 election, taking the National Broadband Network down with it.


Years ago, I was fishing in a faraway lake one morning and a big fish took my lure. Long hours we fought, me reeling in a few centimetres at a time, then giving way as it looked like he was pulling too hard and might snap the line. A battle of wills and a battle to the death, it was — and it was only as the sun began to set, two days later, that I finally wrestled what looked to be a two metre-long salmon alongside the boat.

Just when Labor almost had the NBN landed, Rudd's destabilising actions have threatened to make it the one that got away. (Lates calcarifer image by Rob and Stephanie Levy, CC2.0)

OK, I admit it: like all the best fish stories, elements of the previous paragraph may have been exaggerated. Now that I think about it, our battle might only have lasted five minutes. The fish was big, but probably more like 50cm long. And no, I didn't lash it to the boat, Old Man and the Sea-style, only to have it consumed by sharks during the trip home. It was a fresh-water lake so that would have been impossible — even if I had managed to get the fish in the boat instead of watching, powerless, as it looked at me, shook its head, spat out my lure and swam back into the depths.

Big or small, that was The One That Got Away. And, unfortunately, it is now entirely possible that something similar may happen with the National Broadband Network (NBN).

After a remarkable day earlier this week in which Kevin Rudd demonstrated once and for all that he is as self-obsessed and egomaniacal as Julia Gillard, the Labor Party has begun rending itself apart in a jaw-dropping display of bilious discontent. The country is now in the awful position of being run either by a scheming backstabber with far from unanimous support in her own cabinet, or by a scheming backstabber with far from unanimous support in his own cabinet.

I'd suspect most voters are just fed up with both of them. And, either way, the NBN seems doomed.

There are few scenarios in which one can imagine this kind of behaviour is going to go unpunished by the electorate. Even if she wins on Monday, the odds of Julia Gillard leading the Labor Party to a 2013 election win seem smaller than ever: regardless of her not-insignificant policy achievements, she will ultimately be judged with the same superficial disdain that has plagued her since the coup she instigated.

The real casualties will be the thousands of people [working] to implement the Labor Government's policies...

Whoever ends up as Prime Minister, the real casualties of the coming reckoning will be the thousands of people who have worked tirelessly to implement the Labor Government's policies — and now face another 18 months of hard work executing policies that will, in all likelihood, be reversed by a coalition government.

Whether Rudd's intention was to turn the last half of Gillard's term into a lame-duck debacle, I cannot tell. But if there is a more sisyphean, soul-destroying job than working hard to implement something you know will soon be undone, I cannot at this moment think of it. And if there is a single project most likely to be affected by such a change of power, there are a few more obvious for culling than the NBN — which currently employs over 1300 people within NBN Co and has created private-sector employment for thousands more.

Ditto Stephen Conroy who — love him or hate him — has made the subjugation of Telstra and the delivery of the NBN the cornerstone of his tenure as communications minister.

That he has all but succeeded in fundamentally re-architecting our telecommunications market is testament to his tenacity, pugnaciousness and unwavering support for change. Yet if Conroy is relegated to the back bench come next year, he will face the soul-destroying torture of watching his years of hard work being wound back, one by one.

Like my fish of so many years ago, he will struggle until the last moment and watch, powerless, as what was nearly within his grasp slips away once again. And all he will be able to do is sit back, cover his mouth in horror and watch as the Liberal Party returns Telstra's monopoly and condemns the country to the demonstrably fickle whimsy of bloody-minded telcos. Even significant legacies of Conroy's time as minister — such as the completion of a formal separation structure with Telstra, the regulatory changes around NBN Co's operating environment, the government's successful deals with Telstra and Optus — would no doubt be diluted or repealed as the coalition pursued its own agenda.

Yet Labor and its dreams aren't the only likely casualty from this fiasco. Once the media tires of coverage about the winner of the leadership diva-off on Monday, the spotlight will invariably shift to the Opposition.

Remember that Tony Abbott was also installed by the slimmest of margins in a similar coup against Malcolm Turnbull. I'd say it's about as likely for Kevin Rudd to go to the polls with Julia Gillard as his deputy as it is that Turnbull will continue to sit on his hands, quietly fighting the NBN via press release as shadow communications minister while Abbott — a man who lacks the intelligence, vision and tact to be Prime Minister — gets all the glory.

If Turnbull has an ounce of ambition around him — and history suggests that he does — he will have taken the events of this week as a sign that it's time for change. If Labor blood is to be shed, can we be surprised if Turnbull gets out the proverbial knife and does a bit of backstabbing of his own?

The alternative, I would imagine, would be unthinkable to him: three or more years stuck in a middling technology-related portfolio executing the blind madness of a party leader who has campaigned against Labor and its NBN vision based on empty sound bites and a fundamental lack of understanding about the real issues it will solve. Like the Grinch stealing presents from the well-meaning Whos, deep in his heart, I can even imagine Turnbull would shed a few quiet tears as he did it.

If you have not already read it, I highly recommend you block off a chunk of time and work your way through the 6000-word-plus NBN treatise by ABC journalist Nick Ross, who has long been troubled by the misrepresentations around the NBN and has left no holds barred in his attack on the campaign of misinformation and blind opposition to the project.

Ross goes to great length to illustrate why the coverage of a misinformed media has perpetuated the kind of deceptions peddled by Tony Abbott's Liberals, but on reflection I think the gist of his piece — like many I have previously written here — can be boiled down to one fundamental issue.

Labor, it must be said, has spent all its energy selling the NBN based on what it is — and spent precious little time selling the project based on why it is. This has allowed opponents to distract the public with petty debates about 50Mbps vs. 100Mbps, fixed networks vs. wireless, FTTN vs. FTTP, FTTP vs. ADSL — all of which are peripherally important to the very real issues that brought the NBN into existence in the first place.

Labor has spent all its energy selling the NBN based on what it is — and spent precious little time selling the project based on why it is.

Love it or hate it, Labor's solution to those issues has proved to be more aggressive and ambitious — and, yes, more expensive — than any put before. It has also made the most concrete progress, and come closer to fulfilment than any other. For the project to meet an untimely end not because of its own lack of merit, but because Labor couldn't prevent it from becoming collateral damage of outrageous and self-destructive party infighting, would be a tragedy not only for the people directly involved but for the country's future as a whole.

Yet we are now faced with the prospect of a hobbled NBN — not because the NBN is inherently bad, but because Gillard and Rudd have once again failed to sell their respective merits to the public correctly. They have allowed the current debate to become a battle of the sexes and personalities; as with their NBN mistake, they have allowed the debate to be refocused on who is running the country, rather than focusing on what Labor will do for the country. And in the end, it doesn't matter so much who is running the country, as it matters how effectively they can do so.

That is why the NBN may be dramatically diminished once our next Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, begins working with heir apparent and newly appointed Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to dismantle the NBN as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. By the time they're done, our telecommunications industry will have been set back 10 years — and Rudd and Gillard will be sitting on opposite sides of the opposition benches, casting dirty glances at each other as they quietly lament everything that could have been.

What do you think? Has Rudd's mutiny doomed Labor to an election loss? Or could a reaffirmed Gillard salvage her party, and the NBN it created?

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government AU, NBN, IT Employment


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • I must say that at this stage you are drawing a pretty long bow. It is far from certain that Rudd will oust Gillard and pure speculation that Turnbull could again become leader of the Liberal Party.

    Let us look at the facts. Currently according to polls over 50% of the population support the NBN and only about 25% oppose it. Any party that wants to be elected to govern would need to be very cautious in proposing that the NBN be scrapped.

    If we look at the last election we saw a swing to the Greens and the independents which some commentators have attributed to the policies of the major parties on the NBN and the mandatory ISP filter.

    I would suggest that if the two major parties don't get their act together on IT policy that we are likely to see a parliament in which the Greens and the independents have a greater say than at present and that the NBN will be safe regardless of who is governing.
    • If the NBN's future is so safe, why does Turnbull keep dissing it with ever more outlandish criticism?

      And if Giilard prevails, will the electorate re-elect Labor whose ministers have been unnecessarily forthcoming in their criticism of Rudd to the point where they have handed the Libs megabytes of sound bites for use in the next election.
    • sorry but after this , if rudd or gillard wins, labors minority govt is gone... as members quit or defect, hence, we will have an election this year, and im sure Liberal will win, NBN will be gone by EOY 2012. Rudd will come back as opposition leader.
  • If Malcolm Turnbull is 1/3 as smart as you think, he knows that his time as opposition leader was an absolute failure and that he will never lead the Liberal party. literally from the day Abbott beat him in a ballot, the Coalition has gone from strength to strength and have capitalised brilliantly on the ALPs many public and policy failures.
    Harry Futtle
    • Up to and including failing to win the election.

      Liberal's threw that one away due to pure idiocy on their part.
    • What strengths? Seriousl the only thing Abbott has done since h became leader was try to detroy every policy the government has implemented, his policies can be reduced to nothing more than slogans, after all that is all they are.

      Especially in Broadband his $6 bn plan is a complete joke and will set this country back while most of the developed world will be accelerating ahead of us. But hey atleast we will have America to keep us company with their lackluster BB networks.
      • What strengths? hmmm. tough, perhaps the fact that if an election were to be held today, the coalition would win by a landslide. there is no other metric that matters. re 'not having policies' that is called political strategy, if you release your policies early, you give the Govt time to attack them. The NBN, the people who really push it either work in IT and like shiny toys or already have fast internet. the people who really need better internet would have already had it under the cancelled OPEL plan and the country would have been about $45 billion better off, which is looking more and more important as the world heads for the next big recession.
        Harry Futtle
        • Your comment reads like liberal party talking points. You're either the most brainwashed liberal party supporter in the universe, or the least subtle paid shill ever to grace the comments section on the website.

          You haven't addressed TimHT's original argument at all. In a functioning democracy, a party should _always_ have their policies clearly stated for anything of national significance, it's not a case of being 'cyclical' as you describe it, or at least it shouldn't be (for future reference, that's one of the most telling ways that you're simply here with an agenda).
          This has not been the case for the liberal party in Australia, and it's a worrying overarching trend that undermines values consistent with a working democratic society.

          Australia has has the fortune of unprecedented wealth, delivered by the mining boom. Supposedly, we're all much, much richer now, and private sector wealth will impact naturally impact net cash inflows to the public sector as well, so it's reasonable to compact that to a single fact- the government is richer now. As contemptuously as people like you think the public are, believe it or not, people do get that. As a nation, we've got a low debt to GDP ratio and are basically the envy of the world at the moment, in economic terms.

          So it comes down to a case of where do you spend your money. The last time the libs actually remotely tried to address that question was when Abbot muttered something vague about building more schools several months ago, so if any political party was remotely interested in doing something good for the country they serve, (I imagine you consider yourself a bit of a political strategist), it stands to reason that you'd get more votes with a plan like the NBN.

          The NBN only delivers a long term benefit when it is delivered in it's current scale. Arguments about the technology itself are completely redundant- it's useless talking about HFC vs Fiber if only a few percent of the population can get it, as a data connection will only be as good as the technology between each device (surely even you can understand that), and this is the message that the ALP should be selling- It won them the election, and is the argument that people like you, deliberately or otherwise, fail to acknowledge. In any case, long story short- the NBN is good, we know that and want it. Please stop putting politics and greedy self interest ahead of democracy and nation building. Thanks bye.
          • +1
          • In a functioning democracy, a party needs a good leadership.

            Currently labor doesn't have any leadership at all, it's a mess that really should never have been put into place it had the least votes out of the liberal, labor, greens parties, yet only got in because 5 people wanted the NBN in their part of the country first and mandated that.

            That is way you'll never seen the NBN rolled out into the cities for a good year or 2.

            So I don't know where or how you get labor got voted into power as the libs had them beat it was only the % that have allowed those 5 indepants to put labor into power, and in the last 2 months have seen labor faze out those same indepants to the point where they have no power at all, hows that for a smach to their face from labor.

            All the money for the NBN came from the libs because they had 100 billion sitting in the bank, labor under rudd has spent all that money, and then spent an extra 500 billion for all sorts of stuff, and then gillard is trying to come up with carbon taxes and now the mining tax.

            which could see companies move out of Australia and the mining companies stop expanding and set up shop else where, this has already started.

            The current mess that labor sees itself is the fact that it doesn't have the numbers to have any control it was the green who forced the carbon tax into place at the $23 a ton of carbon, we haven't seen the effects of that yet but do expect things to suddenly jump up in costs.

            You might not even have the spare cash required for an NBN connection anyway, so it might not be worthwhile bothering about an NBN connection anyway.

            The problem you have is that people see the government putting up taxes and making new taxes up to pay off a 800 billion loan within 2 years (it'll never happen) and a NBNCo with a slick 40 billion sitting in the bank and doing nothing with it other than spending hundreds of thouands on hooking up country towns with just 3 people hooked up for a townships of 50 people.

            The numbers just aren't stacking up and there's money their that people want to be poured into hostipals etc than some non needed NBN network hate to break it to you but people just aren't that fussed about an NBN network.
          • Mate your comments here come across as a bitter perpetual Coalition voter who simply is unable to grasp the hung paliament scenario and continues to sob over the one that got away.
      • You are very correct indeed. The 'Liberals' (such an odd name for a bunch of 1850s conservatives) are not putting any policy forward but merely opposing anything presented by 'Labor----that is Politics, not leadership.

        I still firmly believe that the NBN will be outdated junk by the time it is complete. Let's look at your "average" married couple with 2.4 kids:
        - 16yo in his bedroom playing online games, downloading porn, and streaming HD movies.
        - 15 yo in her bedroom streaming different HD movies, running facebook to the max (and who knows how bloated it will be by then?), and using the mobile phone across the house wi-fi connection for ridiculous long SMS conversations that could take place in only 5 minutes if the parties TALKED to each other.
        - Father streaming HD sport and news simultaneously while probably also downloading porn.
        - Mother streaming infomercials (probably also in HD) whilst using an H2O steam mop to bash up the fridge because it ordered the wrong groceries.
        - The 2.4 child streaming "Teletubbies" and similar, also in HD.

        All of these users are going to expect continuous glitch-free streaming when I seriously doubt that 100Mb would be able to handle the real bandwidth required, and that is WITHOUT taking into account the next developments on the net that are likely to be more bandwidth hungry than what we have at the present.

        I am on the highest speed ADSL2+ that I can get in a regional area, and even the ABC's iView is glitchy and often out of voice-sync when I am the only user of this connection. Try watching the same thing in HD? I don't think so.
    • Shame the Libs don't have any real policy themselves...any time they ever do try to put something forward it's exposed for the joke it is..."soil magic" and a 70 Billion unfunded hole in their costings to name just two.
  • we could only hope for a turnbull bid. the liberals are just as factious as the ALP.

    but nay, Abbot will win, and the NBN to be sold as scrap to Telstra to play out the supply contracts.
  • Calm down.

    Unless there is a double disolution the Greens will control the ballance of power in the Senate for some time. And that will make it very difficult for Abbot or Turnbull to unwind the NBN.
    • The legislation will be tough to unravel - and they won't expend their political capital trying (they might reserve that for the carbon tax and MRRT).

      But they can easily perform the act of political vandalism by ceasing the rollout, and winding up most of the operations of NBN Co. The government constitutes the sole shareholder of NBN Co, and can direct them to stop all future rollouts.

      The state of existing contracts will play a part (such as with Silcar, Syntheo etc) - but they can fire Mike Quigley and his team, and leave the operation rudderless and dead in the water. All depends on how blood-minded they want to be.
  • Nailed, David.

    It is indeed the government's biggest failure to educate the electorate on the whys of the NBN - why we need one, why it must be universal, why this means fibre absolutely wherever possible, not copper, why it is best funded and repaid as a self-contained project, and many more. Last year, NBN began doing some education in exasperation at the government's failure. Indeed the best educational resources available are the many presentations, and the principle reference is the $25 million McKinsey NBN Implementation Report of May 2010.

    But Labor may not catastrophically lose in 2013. Re-read the media in the weeks prior to the 2010 election. They were doomed. But six days before the election, Tony Abbott finally announced his broadband solution - no Telstra separation and continued reliance on corporate boardrooms to dictate who would get any services. Three safe regional electorates fell, and in 2013 the number will be at least five or six because regional Australia has begun being educated by Armidale and the other first release fibre recipients.

    Now, many years after John Howard's 2004 first attempts to deliver universal broadband to overcome Telstra cherrypicking, everyone who has followed the matter (including Malcolm Turnbull, by the way) knows that the FTTP NBN is not only the right project for our vast but extremely urbanised nation, but also has a funding model that protects its construction timeline and avoids any impact on all budget categories.

    Even Coalition voters are evenly divided (42% for the NBN, 43% against) after three years of coalition sniping. This will affect votes, if not to Labor then at least away from the coalition which can be the same thing.

    Whilever the coalition allows Labor to be the only broadband party, it will lose hitherto safe country seats. Broadband is almost insignificant compared to many policy areas, but elections are won on hard voter numbers, and unless the coalition credibly adopts the NBN or something very like it, and convinces the electorate that it will deliver it after all, then voters will leak to candidates who will. Ludicrous as it sounds, we have a Labor government now because of Tony Abbott's intransigence on fibre in 2010. Will he repeat this fiasco in 2013?
  • David - you confuse NBN with NBN Co. We all love the idea of an NBn - it is NBN Co that is making such a hash of it and needs to be restructured to both preserve the concept of an NBN and keep TElstra in check. It is not insignificant that tElstra's share price has gone up over this period of its so-called reining in. If anything Conroy has further entrenched Telstra. Even worse Quigly has pointedly created a TElco (Phil Dobbie interview on ZDNet) and has brought across the worst of the Telco industry culture - and I can tell you it is already more arrogant and worse to deal with than Telstra or any of the other TElco's, even in their worst moments ever. On that basis alone the NBN Co concept, i.e. primary monopoly builder of the NBN needs to be completely revamped.

    Just to point out that both parties orignally went to the kevin07 election with very similar broadband plans. It took a lot of work to get labour up to speed and out of its rut. Similar needs to happen with LNP - although if you looked closely at the LNP announcements instead of knee jerk reaction you would see the skeleton of that change. My only regret is we are still paying to keep NBN Co incompetents with their snouts in the public trough for another year or two. For them it will be a mixed blessing - the money will be reined in but they will also be able to sweep the unholy waste/ mess under the carpet and blame a change of political masters.
    • Rossyduck, welcome. David is not confused. NBNCo is not mandated to teach, only to build. NBNCo is doing a magnificent job, even though early 2011 saw it saddled by parliament with the new job of actually building Greenfields fibre which was to have been done by private industry to its specification. Its resellers are now delivering 5500 active services out of 18,000 premises passed, and Telstra Bigpond is not even fully engaged yet pending the ACCC acceptance of its separation undertaking. Network downtime is non-existent, we are hearing no reports of metering or billing errors, and are on target to have 758,000 premises passed this year.
      Why bother to raise the rejected plans of four years ago? The OPEL wireless plan was found to under-deliver bandwidth at its $6 billion price, due to inadequate tower numbers and too-wide spacing. The $4.7 billion NBN mark I FTTN + wireless plan floundered because (a) it was found to actually cost $11 billion and (b) Telstra owns ten million copper segments between footpath and premises for which it wanted $15 billion compensation. What is on the table, for which contracts have been let, is two redundant, high-capacity Ka-Band satellites, LTE wireless for 4% of premises where fibre cannot reach but demand justifies building wireless, and a $12 billion one-off optical fibre installation to premises in towns and cities. And it delivers a wholesale telco, but one owned by the parliament, not by shareholders.
      • umbria,

        I am interested in finding out where to get "current" facts and find your post quite interesting with some of the numbers quoted.

        For example, in "latest news" from the NBN Co website has the entry : "NBN hails 4000th customer" and cites "2315 premises using the fibre optic service and 1700 in rural and remote Australia receiving broadband via the interim satellite service" so it is more like 2315 FTTP connections (or have I misunderstood).

        And was it "saddled by parliament with the new job of actually building Greenfields fibre" or more a case of abandoning the tender process to enter into private negotiations which went to Silca for Qld, NSW, ACT (40%) and very reliant upon Telstra infrastructure ? Never really heard who (of the 5) won the rest of the contract.

        And dont recall seeing a request from Telstra for $15 billion, thought the reality was an offering of $11 billion but the market had suggest to the government it was more in the vicinity of $15-20 billion but then it couldnt really do that because it would empower Telstra to be competitive and the harsh reality is for NBN to be successful is they had to truly monopolise the entire network. Conroy even said (in four corners interview) "The Government could spend $15 billion to build a fibre to the node network, pay $15-20 billion to Telstra for compensation, and then Telstra could take that money and build a fibre to the home network past you and strand 70 per cent of $15 billion on the side of the road."

        You may well be 100% correct, I just dont seem to be able to find the same level of information as you can (and searching is a pain in the proverbial).