As NBN rolls on, where's the Opposition?

When an opposition minister concedes he's not really on top of issues in his portfolio, you know he's not going to be much of a hindrance. Which is a good thing for Stephen Conroy, who is busy railroading through the NBN to support Labor's election bid. But is Labor's end-justifies-the-means mentality acceptable if it means ensuring the delivery of such a critical project?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

For all the political bluster, it's astounding that Labor's run-up to the NBN has been, for all intents and purposes, completely unhindered by the Opposition, by normal government process or even by Labor's own (theoretical) governance.

The latest example of this approach came as the minister finally received the NBN implementation study he commissioned to explore the network's feasibility and potential cost structures. This is, of course, an appropriate thing to do as part of any major expenditure like that which the NBN represents — but it seems poised to make not a whit of difference to how (or whether) the NBN is actually implemented.

That, of course, is because the NBN is already well underway. The Tasmanian arm of the network, railroaded through in an attempt to prove the NBN can work in the lead-up to this year's election, is already looking at issues like consumer education and pricing as it aims for a July launch.

Tony Smith

Tony Smith (Credit: Liberal Party)

The mainland backhaul is under construction. Initial capital-city test areas have already been decided and announced. The government even ejected planned joint venture partner Aurora Energy because negotiations were holding up the roll-out.

There is, in other words, a great deal of momentum behind the network — and Labor wants it this way, because it needs a functioning network to point to when it's making its case for re-election. This is logical, since Labor has a number of political vulnerabilities for which it's going to have to balance, and it needs a working Tasmanian NBN to distract voters.

But where is the transparency, the opposition, the outrage? In pushing through the NBN so quickly and opaquely, Conroy has repeatedly evaded attempts to hold him accountable for his plans. Getting him to release the long-awaited implementation study required a Senate motion that's not guaranteed to succeed. Conroy sat on the NBN expert panel report and ACCC recommendations about the network, and spent two months figuring out how to put a positive spin on the Enex Test Labs report into his controversial internet filter.

Nick Minchin's threat to stall NBN-related legislation unless the NBN expert report was released proved empty; six months later, Minchin even had to resort to the old journalist's trick with a Freedom of Information request. Conroy's answer: Minchin could have the documents if he would foot the $24,000 cost.

Surely, as a member of the Opposition, Minchin shouldn't have to be chasing down public information through channels normally used by private citizens? Surely, there's an electronic copy that someone could just email to him? Labor seems to have forgotten that the Opposition politicians were elected to represent the people too, and its response was like getting annoyed at your local council and traipsing down to pay your rates with jars full of five-cent pieces.

So far, the Opposition's major line of attack seems to be in targeting NBN-related legislation, particularly in terms of the potential forcible split of Telstra. But is simply blockading the legislation out of spite, or rolling out emotionally-charged claims that the legislation is "unAustralian" really the best they can do? Come on, folks: the bulldozers are already rolling.

If the Opposition simply stonewalls right through the election, the net effect will be to give Labor a licence to tell voters that it built them a brand-spanking new network but the Opposition refuses to support the legislation necessary to make it work. Will voters be filled with moral outrage when the Coalition says it's just trying to save the flagging fortunes of Telstra, or will they rebel against the stonewalling and push Labor into office so they can just get the job finished, and finished properly?

After all, how would the Coalition look by fighting the NBN after Labor has promised most Australians 100Mbps internet access, and recently upped the ante to 1Gbps for businesses? That would be like going to a kid's birthday party and swapping the cake for broccoli pie while the horrified guests looked on.

The NBN is a good idea, albeit an expensive one. The way it has been implemented reflects a total absence of governance, a one-sided and very risky plan that has been exposed to almost no debate and no opposition. Labor's chronic habit of building first, then assessing its plans later and ignoring the findings anyway, violates all the basic principles of good government. Yet maybe, just maybe, we need to ignore good government for a while and just do what it takes to get the NBN in place.

Maybe we need to ignore good government for a while and just do what it takes to get the NBN in place.

There is power in being able to push forward regardless of what one's critics say, and Conroy is clearly using that power to his advantage. The alternative, realistically, is massive political deadlock and any manner of compromises that would likely rein in the scope of the project. It is simply commercially untenable to deliver fibre to sparsely populated rural areas, and Conroy knows it. But nobody is arguing that Australia's current broadband situation is OK.

That Abbott knows this, may explain why his telecommunications spokesperson — newly appointed MP Tony Smith — seems to have little of the pugnacity required to truly do anything meaningful to counter Labor's communications policies. He is a virtual no-show in the public eye, a mystery man to industry journalists, and was — in the push for the latest government call to release the NBN implementation study, at least — one-upped by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. The Greens have even led the charge against Conroy's internet filter, promising to vote against the filter Bill. Meanwhile, the Liberals remain non-committal about nearly everything.

Smith cast an unimposing shadow at the recent Australian Telecommunications User Group conference, whereby the account of attendees said he had little new to offer. "Conroy has it easy with this shadow minister," noted journalist Renai LeMay. "@tonysmithmp says he doesn't profess to be an expert in every area of telecommunications." Smith also went on to confess that the Opposition won't take a position on Labor's internet filter until its legislation is announced. Go get 'em, tiger.

Perhaps Abbott's choice of replacement for Nick Minchin could more aptly be described as the Minister for Self-Deprecation and Non-Committal Waffle. It's certainly unusual for a sitting politician to stand in front of the industry he represents and admit that he's not an expert in the area. If this is the Liberals' idea of open government, maybe it's not actually such a good idea; everyone would respect Smith more if he stood up and at least acted like he had an idea of the issues involved.

It's certainly unusual for a sitting politician to stand in front of the industry he represents and admit that he's not an expert in the area.

One can only imagine the sound of the slapping of foreheads as observers realised just how low a priority Abbott's crew has put on taking Labor over its NBN policy. Or, perhaps, the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief as it became evident that the government can just go ahead with its policies without fear of actual resistance from the rest of the government.

Indeed, this may have been Abbott's real plan: the pro-business Liberal party doesn't want to jeopardise billions in big-business civil works contracts by getting pedantic over something like proper government policy. Instead, Abbott has appointed a largely unimposing minister to keep the seat warm while Conroy does his thing and the rest of the Opposition launches an ultimately futile bid to preserve the Telstra status quo.

Accountability be damned, the NBN is going ahead full throttle. And while Conroy's opposition to any form of accountability has angered many observers, he is perhaps to be commended for helping the project lift itself by its bootstraps. Yet in every other aspect, Labor has been deceptive and opaque. Assuming Labor is not thrown out at the next election, the right thing for Conroy to do will be to see the now-inevitable NBN through to its conclusion — then immediately resign for his absolute disdain for the basic rules of good government.

When it comes to getting the NBN in place, does the end justify Labor's means? And are there any teeth in the Opposition's efforts to fight it?

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