Gaffe-r tape can't fix Abbott's NBN case

Parliament is back, and it's game-on again as the NBN debate comes down to crunch time. Tony Abbott still believes the NBN is for interactive gambling and downloading pirated movies, but he couldn't find even $1 to cut from his $2 billion list of budget savings. Given his ever patchier financial and technical record, can he unite his party behind a more coherent NBN opposition — or will his tendency towards bluster and blind opposition end up as a free kick for Labor?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

There is a scene in the comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop where the hypoglycaemic protagonist gets into a bar nacho-eating contest and inadvertently downs several margaritas to counter the burning-hot chillies he has just eaten. Chaos, naturally, ensues and his friends quickly progress from cheering admiration to I-don't-know-you-please-don't-chuck-on-me disgust as the sugar rush fuels progressively weirder behaviour before Blart passes out on the dance floor.

Watching Tony Abbott's rhetoric in recent weeks, I couldn't help but think of poor Paul, who just wants to be liked but ends up with people staring as he plays with a friend's nose and struggles to get his straw into his mouth.


Tony Abbott risks giving Labor a free kick unless he can tone down his bizarre hyperbole and mount a coherent NBN offensive.
(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

Our opposition leader, after all, has built a leadership style around attacking the current government on anything and everything it does, then offering vague and often laughable alternatives that only make Labor look even better. This was on coherent display Tuesday, when Abbott and Joe Hockey held a press conference in which they shared their list of cuts and spending deferrals to a range of environmental, education, healthcare, civil works and other programs.

One of the most interesting things about this $2.065 billion list — apart from the fact that almost nobody seems to be buying it — is that it doesn't mention the National Broadband Network (NBN) anywhere. Not once. At all.

For someone who had barely waited for the Queensland rains to stop before he began calling for the NBN to be scrapped to fund flood relief, that's a white elephant-sized omission. Worse still for the Liberals' fight against the NBN, it confirms what Stephen Conroy has been saying loud and clear: that the NBN isn't a straight budget item that can simply be pared down or slashed out altogether. That Abbott and Hockey couldn't find even $1 to divert from the NBN, effectively sees Abbott ceding yet more ground in what has turned out to be a largely ineffective fight against Labor and the NBN. So far, Abbott's blind opposition to the NBN has been as effective as a mosquito trying to drink from the hindquarters of said white elephant.

Whether this is due to a lack of financial nous or continuing misunderstandings about the NBN, is hard to ascertain. Abbott wears the "I'm no Bill Gates" mantle with pride, and has repeatedly shown either that he's unafraid of speaking what he believes to be the God's-honest truth — or that he truly has no idea about the internet and telecommunications in general. In a society that is among the world's most eager adopters of the internet, that's about as acceptable as showing up at a comic-book convention without a working knowledge of the genesis of Batman.

Not only is Abbott no Bill Gates when it comes to technical detail, but his latest pronouncements are starting to make him sound like the Reverend Fred Nile.

Yet even after his repeated cries against what he sees as a glorified entertainment network (a phrase that could often be just as effectively levelled at parliament), Abbott recently managed to top even himself by vilifying the NBN as a conduit for "more interactive gambling". Not only is Abbott no Bill Gates when it comes to technical detail, but his latest pronouncements are starting to make him sound like the Reverend Fred Nile.

"Interactive gambling" has become to Tony Abbott what "spams and scams coming through the portal" is for Stephen Conroy — a catchphrase that highlights the ineptitude with which both men's detractors can paint them.

Even as the media's amusement with that gaffe died down, Abbott trumped himself yet again by declaring that he would appeal for donations from Liberal Party loyalists to help it fight the Labor Government's regrettable but important flood levy. Cashing in on the disaster is, the opposition leader apparently believes, more important than supporting flood relief efforts that have affected hundreds of thousands of Australians. It took days for Abbott to admit it was in bad taste — just long enough for yet another slip of the tongue to get him in trouble, yet again, in Channel 7's "shit happens" beat-up.

Will the sun ever shine on Abbott and his War On Everything? The fact that such proclamations have become par for the course underscores an ongoing issue with Abbott's leadership. By using poisonous, hyperbolic and often just plain silly language in his attacks on Labor policy, Abbott has opened himself up to both criticism by his opponents (Conroy wasted no time labelling Abbott "a danger" to the country's future) and dismissal by those that share his concerns about the NBN.

How can we take seriously the proclamations of a self-professed technology wowser who speaks in serious tones of the threat posed by interactive gambling and movie downloading, and whose preferred policy at election time was simply to kill the NBN and hand back Telstra its monopoly? How can we lend any credibility to his claims of financial responsibility when he rails against the NBN at every opportunity but fails to add it to his list of preferred budget cuts? With every bombastic pronouncement — remember his claim the NBN was crazier than Whitlam? — Abbott's image is of a man who stands for little more than ... well ... whatever is the opposite of what Labor stands for.

I couldn't help but chuckle while reading the reader comment on this ZDNet Australia story about the Coalition's interactive gambling posture. "Our government is supposed to be planning for the future of our country," the reader offered, "not holding it back."

Those words were written in 2003. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The problem here is not that Abbott does not have a deep knowledge of telecommunications technologies ... it is that he has shown himself to be a person who is simply not interested in learning.

And, in the end, change, or the lack thereof, is what it's all about here. The problem is not that Abbott does not have a deep knowledge of telecommunications technologies; nor is it even that his policies and arguments are so consistently contrary as to often defy logic. It is that Abbott has shown himself to be a person who is simply not interested in learning.

Remember a week before the election, when Abbott skipped the launch of his party's communications policy altogether? Remember back in December 2009, when he admitted he didn't have enough technical detail to comment on Labor's proposed filter? One wonders whether he could explain its workings any better now; the tone of his recent invective certainly suggests that not much has changed.

Even when drawn out as being glaringly incompetent when it comes to what was the singular most-important for many voters, the would-be leader of our country seems to have done nothing over the past six months to educate himself about the NBN, the realities of wireless technology, the past failures of his party, or the best way to accurately and effectively attack the NBN. He's still using the same old misguided hyperbole in public statements, and has handed over the entire NBN offensive to Malcolm Turnbull, who has flung everything he can think of at the NBN in hopes something will stick. Most of it has not.

Yet where Turnbull tries to use inscrutable logic to beat back the NBN, Abbott's tendency to fall back on emotive rhetoric makes him the Kirk to Turnbull's Spock with often comical results. One can't help but suspect that Turnbull is biding his time and takes great pleasure in Abbott gaffes that could, if they continue, convince party leaders that perhaps the shadow communications minister would make a better party leader after all. Abbott only rolled him by one vote, remember, and the way he's going I wonder whether he would still have unseated Turnbull were that vote held today.

This is more than idle observation about Abbott's mistakes: as opposition leader in a parliament that's now resuming with the NBN as its #1 priority, he's going to need to formulate a reasonable plan of attack against the ever-growing NBN, or risk marginalising himself and his party from the debate and giving Labor moral and political carte blanche when it comes to that project. There are many areas of legitimate concern about the NBN that need to be addressed, but if Abbott keeps arguing that interactive gambling and movie downloads are foremost among them, he's going to lose the battle for the Opposition before it has even begun.

As we begin a new parliamentary session, what would you like to see Tony Abbott doing to improve his fight against the NBN? Or is his strategy spot on the money?

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