Can Labor’s NBN shadow be more than a paper tiger?

Ed Husic and Kate Lundy had the strongest profiles on ICT issues, but their omission from Bill Shorten's front bench leaves great uncertainty around who will be appointed to hold Turnbull's NBN to account. But will it even matter who is chosen?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

With the election of Bill Shorten as new leader of the Labor Party and ministers clamouring for frontbench roles ahead of Friday’s shadow-cabinet announcement, the political battleground over the NBN is gradually taking form. But who will take on Malcolm Turnbull over the NBN?

As one of the highest-profile, largest and most significant projects in front of the Abbott government, the NBN is sure to be the source of ongoing tension as Turnbull is held to the extremely high standards he imposed on Labor during his tenure as opposition communications spokesperson.

Peter Pan lost his shadow – but will Turnbull be so lucky? Image: Project Gutenberg

The likelihood that Turnbull will break an early promise by missing the 60-day deadline for completion of his much-vaunted NBN review – which if Coalition promises are to be believed will be complete when the Abbott government turns 60 days old on November 17 – will mark a significant opportunity to assert Labor's authority for whomever Shorten appoints to the position.

Turnbull can expect a vociferous, vicious opposition that will do its best to delay the unpicking of its NBN, which despite its challenges remains among the previous Labor government’s most significant achievements – and perhaps its most publicly-popular legacy.

Although he has tried to toe the moderate line by suggesting that much of the spirit of Labor’s rollout may continue in the short term, Turnbull will need to do everything he’s promised – and do it on time, and on budget – to maintain the air of moral authority with which he regularly beat Stephen Conroy and Mike Quigley about the head in the past.

Any procedural failings, poor transparency, and missed deadlines – particularly if Turnbull fails to quickly secure his essential Telstra renegotiation or find enough staff to build his own network – will be met with a hail of ‘we told you so’ from Labor’s opposition spokesperson.

Peter Pan was able to shake his shadow – but Turnbull may not be so lucky. Unless he can pull off a series of minor miracles in quick succession, the high standards Turnbull set during opposition are likely to come back to bite him.

Husic has already named as his target the Coalition's goal of 9m premises connected by 30 June 2016 – conveniently, just months before the likely next election – as being the time of reckoning for Turnbull. We can expect Labor to be harping on this target almost continuously over the next three years.

Just who will be doing the harping, remains to be seen. Senator Kate Lundy, who has been involved in the ICT sector for many years and is perhaps Labor’s highest-profile technology spokesperson, was a logical choice as successor but missed out in the frontbench appointments – as did Ed Husic, who filled a void by speaking during the slot reserved for the opposition minister at the recent CommsDay Melbourne Congress.

Husic, who got stuck into the Coalition government as having failed to live up to its own standards, was clearly testing his mettle as opposition spokesperson, and his clear and cogent presentation was received well by many of the industry representatives in the room. 

Yet even Husic recognised that he wasn’t a certainty for the position: in a roll-call of tech-related ministers, Husic named Lundy – along with Anthony Albanese, Sharon Bird, Michelle Rowland, Stephen Jones, Nick Champion and newly elected (and ex-Telstra staffer) Tim Watts – as potential banner-carriers.

“We’ve got a team of people with a deep affinity for the sector,” he said, “building off the pioneering work of Stephen Conroy. This is a collection of people who believe, as I do and deeply, in the value of this sector to our nation’s longer term benefit….I believe this is a good thing in terms of prosecuting the case, and in terms of policy development down the track.”

“Our job is to keep a focus on the advantage we get as a nation investing in better broadband,” he added. “Our job is not to accept the orthodox; our job will be to push for better.”

Coming into the game might give Bird or Rowland a fresh angle on a debate that has raged for years, but they will be squaring off against an experienced opponent who has taken the electoral mandate to heart – and is currently enjoying near carte-blanche as he eviscerates NBN Co and sets his agenda in motion.

He didn’t know at the time that he would be out of the running, but Husic’s battle cry would fall on deaf ears as he was overlooked for the Labor frontbench. Instead, the new foil for Turnbull’s NBN reinvention will – barring a surprise comeback by Stephen Conroy, who some reports say has had enough of the portfolio – be either Albanese, Bird or Rowland; the others were also overlooked in the frontbench appointments.

Having served in the communications portfolio, albeit briefly, Albanese might be seen as a strong incumbent, although his experience in transport and infrastructure could well see Shorten focus him in those areas. Given Albanese’s public proclamations as to his lack of technical knowledge, it’s unlikely the shadow ministry would go back to him.

Bird, as Albanese’s regional-based advisor on the communications portfolio, might be seen as a good choice because she would be in a particularly strong position to highlight whether and how the Coalition’s NBN policy addresses the needs of those on the other side of the digital divide (who, as iiNet John Lindsay so correctly pointed out, are still waiting for a look into the broadband revolution).

Rowland, who has been named by some as the preferred candidate of many within Labor, is an industry lawyer who Watts is said to have described as a “coming star”.

Whether she can jump into the complex and well-progressed NBN debate with all guns blazing, however, remains to be seen. Coming into the game might give Bird or Rowland a fresh angle on a debate that has raged for years, but they will be squaring off against an experienced opponent who has taken the electoral mandate to heart – and is currently enjoying near carte-blanche as he eviscerates NBN Co and sets his agenda in motion.

While the new communications shadow minister is finding his or her feet, Turnbull will already be off at a run. Without a solid policy platform to work from – and a dogged determination to hold the Coalition to account – they could end up being left in his dust.

What do you think? Who will Shorten appoint as communications minister? Will it be the person who is best qualified to hold Turnbull to account based on his many past criticisms? Or would someone new and untested be best to unsettle Turnbull’s ministry?

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