Hockey shtick: who's driving NBN policy?

The level of National Broadband Network (NBN) policy schizophrenia within the Liberal Party never ceases to amaze.

The level of National Broadband Network (NBN) policy schizophrenia within the Liberal Party never ceases to amaze. Since Malcolm Turnbull continually refuses to provide details of an official broadband policy, speculation about what the party might do with the NBN keeps coming thick and fast — and it seems to change daily, as one coalition MP or another jumps into the fray.

Depending on who you talk to, the Coalition's policy might be about:

  • Shutting down the project and diverting the funding (which the Liberals strangely insist is in the Budget, when it's not) to build more roads and magically balance our economy (Tony Abbott's policy)

  • Stopping the government from educating the public about the NBN policy that has already been approved and passed into law (Paul Fletcher's policy) — oh, and privatising everything

  • Using a mix of technologies to deliver at least 12Mbps to everyone, more or less, and allowing the private sector to pick up the slack (Malcolm Turnbull's policy).

These are, more or less, the visions that have been presented to us by three senior Liberal Party politicians in recent months. Turnbull is sitting on the fence; Abbott wants to drive his tractor through the NBN at high speed; and Fletcher wants to correct the spelling on the warning signs attached to it.

Now we have a fourth major Liberal Party voice in the discussion — and it's not pretty. From his answers to questions on Tasmanian radio about the NBN, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey apparently expects to sprout wings and fly over the debate under his own power.

Joe Hockey expects to sprout wings and fly over the debate under his own power.

This is the only conclusion that can be reached after Hockey sat with what I assume was a straight face (he was on radio, so it's hard to say for sure) and argued that 4G wireless networks are getting so good that they are a direct threat to the NBN. Why else, he said, would NBN Co have tried to stop Telstra from advertising it against fixed NBN services?

I won't go through the gory details of his argument here — I can't bear to ruin my week, let alone yours, with detailing his lamentable logic, other than to say that it involved the words "iPad", "4G", and "far superior". Reading through the coverage of his statements, I got as far as him mumbling something about the iPad not having a fibre-optic cable dragging behind it before my sensibilities literally collapsed.

I will say only this: the shadow treasurer appears to know very little about 4G; his public statements, like those of far too many other politicians, read like the transcript of a prolonged session of buzzword bingo.

If Hockey is such a strong believer in the power of 4G and his iPad, he should do what Turnbull refused to do when I dared him a year ago: shut off the fixed broadband connection at his home, set up a 4G router as his home's main phone and data service and live exclusively off that iPad for a month.

You'll know he's taken up that challenge when you see flying pigs dive bombing your hedgerow.

The thing about this is: I'm all for lively and spirited debate on any issue, but it needs to be honest debate. And what we've been getting from the Liberal Party, in different shapes and measures, is anything but. Statements like Hockey's ignore basically everything that is real and true about 4G, and focus on what he is painting as some magical technology that will fix everything.

Because he is a person of authority, Hockey is confident that uneducated voters will listen to him, rather than checking some esoteric telecoms news site to learn the reality of Australia's broadband situation (if you are in this category, I recommend you make yourself a three-course meal and sit down to read ABC journalist Nick Ross' voluminous and fact-filled discussion of why the entire industry knows the future is about fibre-attached Wi-Fi and not 4G).

So, while they may be able to pander to voters by hoping that the listening public won't fact check their positions, these politicians are doing themselves and the population a huge disservice. They are distorting the argument with their own ignorance of the issues — and setting unrealistic expectations that can only let people down when the vision of our broadband future that they're painting fails to materialise.

What is so remarkable is that all of these senior politicians can't seem to get their stories on the NBN straight — not one little bit. Abbott loves to talk about the dysfunctional Labor leadership, but the Liberals can't even get four senior politicians singing from the same hymnal. I've already lamented the apparent communication gap between Abbott and Turnbull, but things get worse with more people involved.

The tendency to add in more voices and opinions may keep the tech media wonderfully busy with fact checking, but it's perplexing many in the populace who look to their leaders (both aspiring and actual) to take informed, educated stances on key issues.

Turnbull may be the most to blame here, since he has repeatedly refused to speak about his party's preferred option in detail. He may naturally be wanting to keep his cards close to his chest until just before the election, and that's politically understandable — but he should also recognise that the public nature abhors an information vacuum.

In the absence of consistent, reliable facts, the public will simply ignore its elected decision makers and make up its own mind based on available facts. And if that public is properly informed, its conclusion about the NBN will have nothing to do with 4G.