Shooting ourselves in the NBN

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


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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  • Gee,

    Everytime you read David's article, I think of the X-Files. I picture a flying saucer with a light beam coming down beaming him up as he stares at it with a t-shirt printed with "I WANT TO BELIEVE!". Move over David Duchovny!!!

    It's very easy. The Libs are trying to save the Australia taxpayer from forking out money on a dud project with a 6% return, hoping to get some back in 20-30 years, that will be one of the biggest disasters of all times.

    Telstra doesn't care. It get $11billion to take it further into a power house. The only losers will be the taxpayer.

    The real talk should be about change in government we hope in 2-3 years, how Telstra will reacquire this dog at a fraction of the price and take it as 'functional' separation part of their business, which should have happened in the beginning.

    At least we only loose a few billion instead of countless billions.

    P.S. Not part of the libs. Just want to save the taxpayer.
    • And what would the Liberals do with this money saved?

      Do you honestly think they will spend it on your precious Australian taxpayers, giving them better education, healthcare, roads, transport, energy?

      Or would they waste it all on shoring up private companies who can't run a profit like the last time the Liberals were in power?

      I'm not a Labor supporter by any means, but the Liberals have shown they're just as awesome as wasting taxpayers money as Labor.

      So give me a constructive reason as to what the Liberals will actually do with the money, and I might take your side.
  • You clearly prove that there are two distinctly different camps, in relation to this (NBN) debate.

    1. The pro-NBNers who are from across the political divide who can see the immense benefits of NBN...

    2. The anti-NBNer/Liberal party puppets who simply tow the party line.

    If in doubt re-read your last two comments, above and here -

    Pitiful political propaganda and nothing else! LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • @RS, perhaps we could add another category to those who just toe the party line and blindly oppose:

    3. Corporate and shareholder voices who will apparently do/say anything to protect their own interests against the national interest.
  • Yes indeed, gnome... I just didn't want to mention shareholders (for once...LOL)!
  • RS,

    Do you know at all what you are talking about?

    You proclaim telstra, but hid behind nbn?

    You must be a confused individual, because we (people in the industry) don't have any idea what you are going on about?

    Pro telstra, but pro nun. You missed the boat mate....... And a long time ago, see financial 101help. Seriously. Being an it user doesn't mean you understand telco and you definitely don't understand finance FULL STOP!
    • "we (people in the industry)" , made me laugh so hard. The people in the industry are the smart people who knows that copper has reached it's limit, there's nothing else you can do to push data over copper anymore. Unless you have four copper lines to your premise and use ADSL binding technology, but the majority of people do not have more than one copper line to their premise. Applications of the future requires a lot more bandwidth than theoretical speed of copper (24Mbps), you be lucky to get a constant real world speed of > 10Mbps, it's possible for a minority. The "People in the industry" would not be so short sighted. The NBN will bring benefits to the next generation of Australians for many decades to come. Applications will appear to take advantage of the NBN in ways you can not imagine now. Who would have thought you could do so much with electricity?

      "The people in the industry" knows that fibre is the way to go, do it once, do it right. Fibre will deliver data at the speed of light when technology exist to permit it. Once fibre is layed, it's just a matter of switching the boxes at each end for speed increase to happen, and changing boxes at each end is very cheap to do so. I can go on and on.....for those who thinks NBN's only good for porn, you are so narrow minded, it's not even worth explaining the NBN to you.
      Salami Chujillo
  • Theguy no need to sob tiger...

    Simply because you are unable to grasp anything beyond the FUD drummed into you by your precious party and foolishly comment sounding like Malcolm's parrot rather than a rational individual.
  • BTW - did you just call me pro-Telstra? LOL...
  • 1. If the Libs had their way, we would be a very rich country with every citizen running around with horses and carts. Even steam engines and rail tracks would be considered a wasteful venture! If some of you folks do not know the definition of 'infrastructure' - look it up!

    2. If I hear one more time that 3G is an alternative to fibre, I'm am going to have these idiots committed. Point and case, I was holidaying in Gold Coast (not some outback town mind you) and the service was so bad, I couldn't even load web pages properly! You can't run critical systems on 3G. As more people use data heavy systems like iPhone, this problems will only get worse. We (industry experts) need NBN for future. Every 3rd world country around us have had fibre for decades!!
    Azizi Khan
  • NBN is the big fat elephant in the room, why? The world has changed greatly regarding internet technology over the last 3years with wireless Internet now becoming mainstream eg. my wireless iMac, iPad and iPhone 4 do not connect to a wire in the wall, it’s not that wireless is the way of the future, as it already is the way of today as this technology does not restrict your movements and access to the Internet. Now with the massive changes in the way we access the Internet over the last few years, how advanced do you think technology in the area will be by the time the NBN is complete in 2020? My guess is that it will be obsolete well before then and no later then 2018 based on the progress of technology in this area today.
    Sent from Davids iPad.
    • Light is advanced as it gets as a transport medium, there is _nothing_ faster, _everything_ else is slower. When it rains, your wireless will slow and even drop, and even satellite is effected.

      "Sent from Davids iPad."

      Guess that explains the "wall of text"...
    • When you say "my wireless iMac" are you running it with a telco dongle plugged in the back? If so, I have two questions:

      (1) Why?
      (2) How's the throughput?
  • "Believers" what more can be said,

    No use talking fact with them, it's too real.

    Better off watching Star Trek for reality. Am sure they are more 'users' than imbedded in the industry. Users, everything for nothing, no idea of money (except the best deal), and could not understand ROI (return of inverment) no matter how hard it is explained as does not compute with 'faith'.

    Shoot from the hip, and hope it hits. Can't wait for the big "I TOLD YOU SO" and will rub it in HARD!!!
    • You do realise that governments are NFP right? The ROI they are after is social gain, not financial.

      And anyway, even Telstra was going to be replacing the copper with fibre as they started to do with the South Brisbane exchange ( ), so if they considered it fiscally responsible/doable, why shouldn't the NBN?