Clare warns of Gonski-like backflips on the NBN

Ahead of the completion of NBN Co's strategic review, Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare has told ZDNet that Labor is concerned the government will rescind its NBN promises, as it did for education funding.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

In one of his first interviews since taking the role of shadow communications minister, Jason Clare told ZDNet that if NBN Co's strategic review allows Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to backtrack on the election commitment of 25Mbps for all Australians by 2016, it will represent another broken promise from the new government.

Image: Jason Clare

NBN Co's strategic review is set to be handed to the government by next week, which will detail the current state of the network and possible directions forward, including a switch from a majority fibre-to-the-premises network to fibre to the node. In a week that has seen the Coalition backflip on its pre-election promises around school funding, Clare said he would be holding the government to account if it uses the strategic review to back out of its National Broadband Network (NBN) election commitment that every premises will have access to at least 25Mbps download speeds by the end of 2016.

"There's no getting out of the commitment that everyone will have access to 25Mbps by 2016. He said it, Tony Abbott said it, and it is no good saying before an election and now change your mind after the election," he said.

"Malcolm Turnbull won't be able to get away with what Christopher Pyne is trying to do and say one thing before an election and change his position afterwards.

"They promised everybody in the country will get access to 25Mbps by 2016. If they come out next week when they release the strategic review and say 'we can no longer do that', well, that is a lie; it is another broken promise that the people of Australia should hold them to account for."

He said that the 25Mbps promise will end up hanging like an albatross from Turnbull's neck.

"I think the government will find that very, very difficult to meet. I suspect they know that already, and I suspect NBN Co are telling them that already."

He said that the strategic review will also be a failure if it doesn't contain an independently audited assessment of the condition of Telstra's copper network, which will form a key part of any future fibre-to-the-node network.

"You can't build a fibre-to-the-node network and know how much it is going to cost unless you know how much it will cost to fix and remediate the copper network. So the report must give us that information. It can't just estimate. It can't make assumptions. It needs the information from Telstra, and that information needs to be independently audited," he said.

Clare's last role in the former Labor government was the minister for Defence Materiel, but he had also been the minister for Home Affairs and the minister for Justice. After Bill Shorten was elected the leader of the Labor party, Clare requested that he be given an economics portfolio, and landed in the high-profile area of communications.

A relative newcomer to the portfolio, Clare said he has been drawing on the experience from the Labor caucus, including from Kate Lundy, Ed Husic, Stephen Conroy, former Telstra senior manager and new Labor MP Tim Watts, and Shadow Assistant Minister Michelle Rowland.

"They've all got enormous experience in the area, and they're really helpful," he said.

Clare has spent the last few weeks meeting with industry both locally and internationally, and he said that while Labor continues to believe that fibre to the premises is the ultimate goal, he is open to hearing the industry's view.

"I don't know everything. No one knows everything. I'm the new kid on the block and I've only been in the job for a couple of weeks, so I'm keen to know everything I can," he said.

"I think the [fibre-to-the-premises] policy is the right one. Everyone I've spoken to so far thinks that fibre to the home is the end game. That's where you need to get to. The question is whether you get there in one stage or two.

He said that the Coalition will realise that fibre to the node is more complicated than first thought, and Labor's job will be to hold the government to account on the "mistakes made and damage done" to the NBN, while Labor formulates its policy on the NBN closer to the 2016 election.

"We'll develop that policy closer to the election, but the fundamental principle that we believe is right is that we need a fibre-to-the-premises NBN, and if this government doesn't do that, then we'll eventually have to come back and finish the job."

While an online petition for the Coalition to keep the project in its current form gained over 270,000 signatures, an NBN national day of action on Tuesday to visit the offices of 145 MPs across the country to deliver the signatures was considerably less popular, seeing just 20 people turning up to deliver the signatures to the office of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Clare said he would encourage those involved in the campaign to keep fighting, and that the small turnout wasn't an indication that the NBN isn't popular.

"One thing you learn if you're a member of a political party is that people live busy lives. Everybody cares about the future of the country, they'll sign a petition to demonstrate that; not everybody can get to a rally during the day or the meeting of a political party at night time. It doesn't mean people don't care, though," he said.

"We need to change the way democracy operates nowadays. That means, for example in the Labor party, branch meetings on a week night don't work anymore. You need to find a way to communicate online."

He said this is why the petition had proven to be so popular.

"It doesn't matter if you're in Broken Hill or Double Bay, this petition gives you a chance to have your voice heard."

He said people power has already managed to shift the Coalition's thinking on the NBN.

"Three years ago, the order from [then-opposition leader] Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull was 'demolish this'. What's obviously happened is Malcolm Turnbull has gone back to Tony Abbott and said 'this is too popular to destroy, we have to keep it if in name only, and build a smaller version of it and call it the NBN'," he said.

"We've had a lot of success over the last three years, and now we need to keep campaigning and saying 'don't damage it, keep building it'."

But this is not a campaign that could be led by Labor, Clare said.

"It's not a political campaign run by a political party. That's what makes it so important; it's a genuine campaign by people who care about having access to the best possible technology in the world. If the Labor party tried to run it, then it wouldn't be as effective," he said.

"But I support everything that they're doing, and my job is to get the message to everyone that signed that petition that the Labor party supports everything that they're doing and will work to the same cause they are."

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