Trust us with the NBN; we're politicians

Trust us with the NBN; we're politicians

Summary: As Rudd and Conroy railroad the NBN into reality, the Liberals are trying to inject some due process into the whole thing by holding Labor accountable for its decisions. However, with the future of Australian telecoms on the line and no real viable alternative, is it just a bit late for accountability?


There is an alternative dieting theory in which everything of the same colour is deemed to have the same nutritional value: chocolate is as healthy as baked potatoes, for example, and pistachio ice cream is as good to eat as broccoli. To some people, it's blind justification; to others, it's a creed to live and eat by.

By all appearances, the Rudd Government is using a similar philosophy to plan its NBN strategy, and indeed its entire budget for next year. In this frame of mind, $4.7 billion is the same as $43 billion because, well, we're in bad times and need to spend our way out of it. Money is money, after all, Labor seems to be arguing, and it's only spoilsports — and Liberals — who don't get it. Don't actually count calories, don't request an ROI, don't bother justifying the expenditure on anything other than gut instinct and the assumption that everything will be alright down the track. The NBN is inherently good, the argument goes, because it will deliver faster internet to lots more people.

This sort of thinking, of course, is providing an immense volume of fodder for the Opposition, which has wasted no time latching onto the fact that the entire NBN strategy process seems to have been drawn up on the back of Kevin Rudd's in-flight lunch napkin as a way of furthering political goals at great expense and bother to everyone.

Not as healthy as a baked potato, no matter how you look at it.
(Chocolate image by André Karwath, CC 2.5)

Labor's case is hardly helped by revelations such as those emerging recently — that the NBN expert panel didn't even consider the ROI of the $43 billion network investment; that Nick Minchin is threatening a filibuster until Conroy hands over the documents he has already been ordered to hand over; that Labor is railroading Tasmania's NBN kick-off to give the project much-needed momentum even before the government's NBN implementation study is complete; that Conroy disputes the need to even subject the NBN to a cost-benefit analysis at all.

The govt's opaque handling of the entire NBN process is ensuring the infighting is likely to get worse before things get

This kind of head-butting is a way of life in Canberra, and the government's opaque handling of the entire NBN process is ensuring the infighting is likely to get worse before things get better. Yet for all Minchin's dogged determination to clip Labor's our-way-or-the-highway politicking, one common thread seems to run through all of these discussions: we (Australia, that is) need the NBN to just go ahead. In for a penny, they say, in for a pound.

Minchin's aggressive tactics are putting him in the same position as a friend of our optimistic dieter, who might be telling them over and over that fresh strawberries and cherry ripe slices are not the same thing just because they're both red. Everybody knows that, yet people's ability to convince themselves they're doing the right thing knows no bounds.

By putting the "oppose" into "Opposition", Minchin may be getting his voice heard and scoring political points against Labor. He may be demonstrating his competence at questioning Labor's questionable motives and kludgy execution of the NBN. But the biggest problem is that he's just being a partisan bully who's not offering any counter-proposals or any hint of an alternative to the NBN as envisioned.

That's because there simply isn't one.

The thing is, we don't need the NBN just because Labor says so; they're just the sugar daddies for Australian industry, throwing money around like a drunken sailor on a binge that we now know will put us tens of billions in debt. Forget the cost: we need this because years of neglect have left Australia's communications infrastructure so rickety, its stewardship by Telstra so erratic, its nature so fundamentally politicised, that the only way forward is indeed to wipe the slate clean and start building from scratch.

In this context, discussing our copper infrastructure anymore seems like a bit of a joke. Even Telstra seems poised for change

This week's FTTH Council Asia-Pacific conference highlighted just how far the world has come from the old days of copper and monopolistic telecoms. Representatives of FTTH proponents in Singapore, Greece, Japan, Hong Kong, India, the United States, and Indonesia all came to share their stories about how they're casting aside their copper legacies and looking to the future of telecoms.

In this context, discussing our copper infrastructure anymore seems like a bit of a joke. Even Telstra seems poised for change: Sol Trujillo has left, and Don McGauchie is scoping out the best fishing holes in which to while away his retirement. There is no better time for the combative mood that has characterised the past decade or so of telecoms policies to change as the government asserts itself and pushes our telecoms forward at last.

Minchin and his fellow pollies will naturally throw up their arms and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of Rudd and Conroy. And while they should certainly be held accountable for their abuse of the NBN process, Minchin also needs to clarify what he hopes to get out of the effort. Would he really support the cancellation of the NBN project just to score political points? Do the Liberals have a better idea?

In the end, everybody just needs to stop bickering about process and get on with it. We all know the political motivations behind the NBN back-flip, as surely as we know that Tim Tams aren't as healthy as rye bread just because they share the same colour. Let them eat Tim Tams: if Labor could stop hiding behind poorly-conceived justification of its policies and admit its real goals — which are to score political points by getting a real NBN up and running before the next election — and if Minchin could stop pretending he cares about process more than political grandstanding — well, it seems everybody would be a bit better off.

What outcome do you see from all this? Should the NBN be cancelled if it's found that Rudd and Conroy have just gone rogue? Or should we just suck it up and get on with it?

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government AU, NBN


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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  • History repeats itself

    The NBN (or whatever monstrosity it eventually evolves into) will be cost-overrun, and most likely privatized under a non-Labor government to pay off the federal debt.

    Shame we have no control whatsoever as the average Joe. Senator Conroy must have so many hate-mails he won't even need to buy toilet paper.
  • ..

    Your article does a backflip on itself, first claiming that the NBN is irresponsible and should be held to account, then criticising Minchin and saying he should stop grandstanding so that Labor can just "get on with it". Which is it? You started using sarcasm, and then completely swapped form without any comedic justification.. Are you nobodies at ZD completely incapable of intelligent journalism?
  • Political f***up. (foul).

    Mr Rudd has become known for his political grandstanding. His NBN election stunt was a vote winner and made him Prime Minister.

    Problem is, now he has to deliver which could see the Australian voter saying "ADIOS Kevin". Truth is the FTTH roll-out could be a financial disaster for the Australian taxpayer.
  • @Political ...

    Mr Lawrence has become well known for his selfish share orientated Telstra grandstanding.

    Problem is he backed Sol the amigo, who has fittingly deserted the sinking ship and said "ADIOS sucker". Truth is the FTTH roll-out could be a financial disaster for the Telstra shareholder.
  • Silver lining

    Couple of thoughts:

    I recently relocated from the CBD of Sydney 1 mile away to the outer CBD of Sydney. It turned out my near-new complex was on a 'pair gain' loop which couldn't get ADSL. And no cable allowed in the complex either. After ringing around a bunch of ISPs, I finally found one who finagled a line transposition through Telstra. After a couple of months, I finally got ADSL2 -- running at 4 Mbps 2 miles from a CBD exchange! Only issue during that time is that I support my work network from home, and am very active politically -- the long unavailability and hassle of getting broadband reconnected was a real pain. It wasn't even certain I wouldn't have to use Unwired at low speeds and high cost for a good while. When I contacted Telstra to find out what the technical story was with the complex, they just kept trying to bundle a line transposition in with their incredibly expensive broadband offerings.

    In the process of all this, I found out Telstra like to put out dodgy data in the wholesaling database to ISPs, many of whom said I couldn't get broadband at all based on their information. I now have it.

    I've concluded it was a huge mistake to sell off Telstra without breaking it up into services and infrastructure components that don't try to lock you into their monopolistic holdings of copper. Big mistake on John Howard's part -- either very lazy, very stupid or very cynical. This is only one of the reasons why Telstra is now the 500lb gorilla in the room.

    I also found out just how limited the ADSL network can be, due to Telstra's use of RIM muxes etc and other shortcuts which don't support ADSL. Entire new complexes can be cut off, in fact entire new housing subdivisions can be cut off like this, as DSL was an emerging technology when the infrastructure was being laid for voice services only. There is a big spiel (FAQ) on Whirlpool about why you may not be able to get ADSL at your address at present, well worth a read.

    Hence, in an information age, I don't see that the NBN is such a bad idea. Australia already is significantly slower than many other countries. We need the NBN to become a clever country that makes things instead of importing them. You can't do that without ready interchange of ideas, broad computing access, etc.

    Telstra deliberately fouled up its NBN tender bid in a show of gamesmanship and endless profit-seeking at the expense of all else. Trujillo and McGauchie played games with the govt constantly. This is how it turns out.

    Now Australia has to start a second publicly owned Telstra (like the old Telecom) in order to get a result. May as well never have sold off the first one (and that went over like a lead balloon in the sharemarket, disappointing countless mum and dad investors and probably helping put paid to the Howard govt), rampant privatisation of important public goods is not necessarily always the best way.

    Some things just have to be nationalised in the public interest, at least to begin with. Whether it's new rail, roads, or broadband infrastructure.
  • Kudos

    That was a really well-written, reasonable post. Props.
  • Not the NBN that's irresponsible

    My argument is simply that it's Labor's handling of the NBN that's irresponsible. Of course the NBN is a great idea but its genesis is so fraught with question marks, thanks to Labor's changing-with-the-winds policy strategies, that I don't think we can even expect to make sense of it anymore, or subject it to normal expectations such as ROI.

    Minchin is philosophically right to demand clarity from Labor, and being a political animal nobody would expect anything different -- but 18 months of the Rudd government and Conroy's telecoms policies should have made it clear that's the last thing we can expect. Labor's policy is like the dieting strategy I mentioned: they should stop trying to justify their policies by arguing that they're rye bread; we all know they're just going to eat the chocolate in the end.

    In the meantime, the worst outcome would be that the NBN was held up because Minchin scored enough procedural points. You'll notice that Minchin isn't proposing an alternative to the NBN as currently formulated, and he really can't. Now that Rudd has guided the white elephant into the room, who's going to volunteer to try to push it out? Will Minchin and the Coalition go to the next election on a platform of throwing out FttH and going back to an FttN or perhaps an Opel-like strategy?

    The policy behind the NBN may be flawed and the ROI vague, but I think we're all agreed that it's an important piece of national infrastructure and we just need to get on with it.
  • Clarification

    Whilst I agree Telstra should have been two companies it was not Howard that caused the issue but Beasley. Apparently Keating wanted to create two companies but was over-ruled/out manouvered by Beasley and thus we ended up with one company.
  • Rehashed bs Steve

    I seem to recall you claiming the same bs before Steve? So since you didn't learn last time, or didn't want to learn, here we go again.


    Lets vote this idiot OUT before he can lay more DEBT on US ALL!!!

    The $43 Billion NBN will be NOT only a whit elephant but will be a BURDEN for taxpayers for years to come!!
  • ok

    all infrastructure costs money, but creates jobs plus the flow on effects everywhere else.

    stop believing all the liberal propaganda.
  • It may be rehashed but its not bullshit

    You can rewrite history all you like, Simon, but the fact is that it was Kim Beazley who set up the monopoly monster nearly 20 years ago.

    I know, I was there.
  • Profligate ALP

    Rudd is already a financial disaster for Australian taxpayers. Swann projects it continuing far into the future. Customers do not just buy the fastest Broadband plan available, they choose an affordable package that meets their needs.
  • no its bull****

    i was there too anonymous.
  • You were there defying history anonymous.

    Thanks anonymous and K. Beazley!!! I wasn't there, but I'm sure you both were! 20 years ago - 1989?

    So here's an Aussie politics classic for you anonymous, who blames Beazley and was there in 1989. Please explain?

    John Howard was elected PM in March 1996

    Telstra (T1) was floated Sept 1997, 1.5 years after Howard was elected PM, by Howard.

    T2 began trading Oct 1999, while Howard was PM

    T3 Nov 2006, while Howard was PM.

    How can it possibly be Beazley's fault?

    He didn't come up with the idea and the directionless Liberals, stole the idea from him, did they?

    But maybe Beazley would have had more sense and tinekered, before selling and done it properly?

    Regardless, it was sold, as a complete entity, by Howard and any gripes we now have, fall at his feet and no one elses.
  • @Political f***up. (foul).

    "Problem is, now he has to deliver which could see the Australian voter saying "ADIOS Kevin". Truth is the FTTH roll-out could be a financial disaster for the Australian taxpayer."

    I don't normally agree with you but on this count I will.

    I was discussing the NBN with my brother-in-law about a week ago specifically on the ROI factor, his argument that it's all good because it's based on a percentage of the GDP. That is one of the key problems, we've got people backing the NBN because of some figures but don't include the main one of ROI, after all it's no good building it if the revenue gained from it (not just directly to the government but across the board) doesn't meet the cost.

    I know people hate to mention it but I'm disappointed Opel never got built, sure it had it's flaws but it did lay a groundwork for network expansion, and it would have done so at a fraction of the cost of the NBN and already been fully rolled out today.
  • History is history

    Simon, you've skated around the core issue (and so has "K. Beazley").

    You're both not addressing what the blog said - that it was Kim Beazley who was Comms Minister when the network was incorporated into Telstra.

    But the Howard govt was also negligent (or worse) in failing to reverse the decision before selling Telstra, apparently because they figured that the market would pay more for a monopoly which had the ability to screw most Australian users.
  • Also note comments in related story of same date

    See my comments under related article on
    "OECD calls for broadband cost-benefit analysis"