Australia cannot afford more politicking with NBN: Turnbull

Seven years of politics surrounding the NBN is all the country can bear, says Australia's longest-serving NBN political agitator.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The time has come for politics and the National Broadband Network (NBN) to become separate, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Radio in Perth on Tuesday morning.

There was no mention of flying swine, nor of satire being admitted to a Perth hospice, so presumably the prime minister and former communications minister was being deadly serious, and not suffering from a case of diabolical amnesia that removed his own actions from his memory.

In response to a question on Labor's NBN policy released yesterday that would see a Shorten government look to add up to 2 million premises to the fibre-to-the-premises footprint, as well as retain the use of HFC networks, Turnbull said the Coalition inherited an imploded project.

"Their lack of management capability, their sheer breathtaking incompetence resulted in us inheriting a project that was failed," the prime minister said.

"What Labor's talking about now are changes to the project which will disrupt it and add many billions of dollars to the cost, and we can't afford that. We can't afford any more politicking with this.

"We are getting the project built and that is what Australians expect me to do as their prime minister. To get on and get the job done."

For those who have forgotten the history of the NBN, it is one of constant politicking -- all day, every day since its announcement in 2009.

The peak of politicisation came in 2013, when Turnbull and the incoming Coalition government asked for the resignations of all NBN Co board members, sacked five of the seven board members, and installed Ziggy Switkowski as executive chairman.

Over the following year, six reviews including a cost-benefit analysis were conducted into the NBN, and at each turn backed the approach Turnbull had promoted in opposition.

In 2012, Turnbull accused much of the NBN Co leadership of being unsuitable to run the company.

And in 2010, Turnbull's Liberal party brought to an election a policy of winding up and selling NBN Co's assets

From the other side of politics, the ALP has had a field day in recent times with a number of leaks out of NBN that culminated in the Australian Federal Police (AFP) executing a pair of search warrants on the offices of former Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of a Labor staffer.

In November, a leaked document revealed that Optus' HFC network is "not fully fit for purpose", while a leak in December said the cost to replace or repair the legacy copper network would amount to AU$641 million.

This was followed in February with the release of a document showing the rollout was seriously delayed and costing more to connect each premises. In subsequent months, documents appeared saying NBN had been working with smaller kit that is cheaper and removes the need to deploy fibre distribution hub cabinets, and that the government's preferred fibre-to-the-node rollout was delayed in 40 areas.

Should Labor be returned to power following the July election, it's hard to see a new government being able to work with NBN's current leadership team, mostly for political reasons.

When the Senate returns to sit, one of its first items to address will be whether the leaked documents seized by the AFP are under parliamentary privilege. If they are, expect Labor to delight in making them public for, you guessed it, political gain.

There might have been a chance to make the National Broadband Network a bipartisan issue and take the sting out of it, but that opportunity was years ago and would have required the Liberal party to buy into Labor's vision. Something it was never prepared to do in Abbott-led opposition.

Therefore, the idea of politics being taken out of the NBN -- especially from someone who has spent almost six years gleefully injecting politics into it at every opportunity -- strikes me as being a bit rich.

For those who wonder how long the Turnboolean truce on NBN politicisation lasted, the poor, wretched thing survived until exactly the next question from interviewer Geoff Hutchison.

"The idea Labor's got -- a very naïve and unbusinesslike view of technology," Turnbull said. "They talk about future-proofing. The truth is you don't know what the future holds. What you've got to do is to build, get this network built as quickly and as cost effectively as possible and that's what we're doing.

"So what Labor is proposing will take much longer and cost much more. We're getting the job done, a job that they have failed and then in the future, of course, new technologies will come along and it will be upgraded -- no doubt, in manners that we may not foresee today."

The Pax Turnbulla of 2016, it was so fleeting I missed it entirely.

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