Abbott was unmovable on 'shocker' NBN policy: Oakeshott

Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott was unwilling to budge on the Coalition's 2010 broadband policy during minority government negotiations, according to former Independent MP Rob Oakeshott
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Then opposition leader Tony Abbott told former Independent MP Rob Oakeshott that the Coalition's 2010 policy to dismantle the National Broadband Network (NBN) was "non-negotiable", according to Oakeshott.

Image: Allen & Unwin

At the 2010 election, the Coalition opposition had an AU$6 billion policy that would have seen Labor's fibre to the premises policy scrapped in favour of fibre backhaul, wireless, and ADSL optimisation.

In order to form government after the election, both Abbott and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard courted Oakeshott and fellow rural independent MP Tony Windsor over 17 days after the election, with Gillard ultimately winning over the two MPs and forming a minority government until September 2013.

At the time, Windsor said the NBN was a major factor in the decision-making process, saying "do it once, do it right, do it with fibre", and in his autobiography, The Independent Member for Lyne, Oakeshott said too that the NBN was a deal-breaker for him.

"Along with local infrastructure, education, health, and Indigenous policies, I stood for parliament on an ETS [emissions trading scheme] and the NBN," he said.

"They were part of my platform."

Oakeshott labelled the Coalition's 2010 policy as "a shocker, totally without merit".

When negotiating with Abbott over forming government, the former MP admitted he knew at this point he would "have a problem with Tony Abbott".

"We again get stuck on climate change and the NBN," Oakeshott said between days three and five.

"[Abbott] refuses to budge on both. I am again left feeling frustrated and unimpressed."

By the final day, on day 17, Abbott had agreed to match everything Labor was offering at the time, except the ETS and the NBN, and on that day, Oakeshott decided to side with Labor.

The Independent MP continued to focus on the NBN during his time in the Parliament between 2010 and 2013, chairing the joint parliamentary committee on the NBN. Oakeshott said he compromised on a Bill that would have allowed the Auditor-General oversight over NBN Co spending, which Labor opposed.

He said chairing the committee with strong personalities including Turnbull and Labor Senator Doug Cameron "took some managing", but said the Coalition were unable to prod a single hole into evidence given at the committee hearings by NBN Co executives.

"I found myself constantly playing traffic cop, and insisting on common courtesy between members," he said.

At the 2013 election, the Coalition changed its NBN policy to become a majority fibre-to-the-node network and using the existing cable networks in addition to fibre to the premises in some places. Despite the Coalition giving some ground from the party's 2010 position, Oakeshott said Labor should have gone harder on the Coalition's NBN policy in the 2013 election.

"Yet oddly, Labor allowed Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott to neutralise the topic despite holding all the policy cards," he said.

"For Stephen Conroy — a big Chelsea fan — the 2013 election campaign was the policy equivalent of Chelsea being satisfied with a 0-0 draw against a Third Division side with only 10 players."

Conroy was not the communications minister at the time of the election, with Anthony Albanese being elevated to the position after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's return to the Labor leadership in June 2013.

The Coalition's policy has the "potential to return millions and millions of dollars in future profits" to News Limited and Telstra through Foxtel, Oakeshott said.

"As much as I have personal regard for Malcolm Turnbull, I think his telecommunications policy is wholly owned by Telstra and News Limited. It does nothing for consumers, and is a massive win for a couple of corporate boards."

But Oakeshott admits that Australians voted for the Coalition's alternative NBN policy.

"In 2010, two rural Independents called for Australia to do it once, do it right, and do it with fibre. In 2013, Australia responded. It chose to do it twice, do it wrong, and do it with a mix of technology."

Rob Oakeshott's autobiography, The Independent Member for Lyne, is out this Wednesday, RRP AU$35 through Allen & Unwin.

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