commentary Shadow Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy is finally on to a winner.
Common sentiment is that Conroy has been mostly ineffective in the merged portfolio he inherited in October 2004 in good shape from its previous owners, the energetic Senator Kate Lundy and high-profile frontbencher Lindsay Tanner.
However, the Labor veteran struck gold last week when he teamed with Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd to launch an ambitious new Labor election promise: a new AU$4.7 billion national fibre broadband network.
The new Labor policy had a dramatic effect upon the nation, instantly making a huge splash in the popular media and igniting widespread debate about the Howard government's broadband credentials.
Five days later, that initial explosion of public interest has settled down somewhat, however the new broadband plan lingers on in the nation's consciousness. References to it are still being made throughout the media, and the topic is all that the telecommunications industry can talk about.
The reaction of Prime Minister John Howard and his team to the new policy went far to revealing just how nervous it made them.
Falling back on his government's laurels, Howard labelled Labor's idea of partially funding the network from the Future Fund superannuation war chest as "reckless" and "economically irresponsible", while his Treasurer and heir apparent Peter Costello described the plan as "shameful economic vandalism".
Conroy's opposite, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan, sent out no less than three vitriolic statements variously labelling the plan as:
- "One of the greatest policy con jobs since the infamous 'Noodle Nation'" (a government label for Labor's 2001 Knowledge Nation education policy)
- "Another re-heated Beazley proposal"
- "Akin to giving the bank robber the keys to the vault"
- A "smash and grab from the Future Fund"
Nobody else to blame
However, in your writer's opinion, it was Coonan herself who left the door open for Labor to launch its extremely popular new broadband policy.
The Communications Minister appears to have seriously underestimated public interest in the ongoing prospect of a new national fibre broadband network, first proposed in the current debate by Telstra back in November of 2005.
Coonan has not provided enough government leadership at a time when the nation has been following every twist and turn of the competition regulator's wrangling with Telstra, and to a lesser extent, its major rivals, about the terms under which a fibre network would be built.
Conroy pointed this out one year ago, in an interview with ZDNet Australia. "I believe there is a role for the government in giving leadership in this. Because at the moment, everyone's sitting around waiting for someone else to do something," he said.
Howard's team have also seriously misread the new Labor policy. While the carrot is the AU$4.7 billion of re-directed funds, what Conroy is really proposing is to move aside the regulatory obstacles that seem to have been holding up construction of a fibre network for some time.
Does changing the regulatory playing field have the potential to cause further, structural problems down the track? Yes, indeed. But if it will result in a short-term win on a fibre broadband network, the Australian public will take that risk, in spades.
In choosing to focus the attack on Labor's Future Fund funding proposal, Howard's team has also left itself open to criticism on its home ground of economic management. Finance Minister Nick Minchin himself admitted this week the Future Fund may not need further cash injections to meet its aim of providing for future government superannuation needs by 2020.
Labor's treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan, among other more independent parties, noted it was ridiculous for the government to protest Labor's proposed Future Fund raid when the account was looking so well topped up.
It has also been pointed out that Labor's plan to invest in a high-speed broadband network was just another form of investment ... and surely a better one from a nation-building perspective that letting the Future Fund money sit in the stockmarket.
What do you think about Labor's new broadband policy? An election-winner or a recycled ram-raid on the public purse? Drop me a line directly at email@example.com