Libs are handing Telstra the reins

No matter how many times it happens, it's still amazing to see how consistently and effectively politicians seem capable of putting their feet in their mouths. Yet in demonstrating their aversion to forward-looking ICT policies, the Liberals are not only proving their knee-jerk policy-making — but effectively threatening to hand the reins of Australia's telecommunications industry back to Telstra.

No matter how many times it happens, it's still amazing to see how consistently and effectively politicians seem capable of putting their feet in their mouths. While this skill might be prized by your local circus, when you're building a case for change at the highest level of government it can be a serious impediment.


(Amounis image by Cgoodwin, public domain)

Witness Joe Hockey's disastrous appearance at the National Press Club this week, where he came out swinging against not just Labor, but against anything and everything that involves spending money. The NBN remains on the Liberals' chopping block, but this week we have revelations that the party will also axe Labor's e-health allotment and — in what seems to be an amazingly stupid example of political posturing — discontinue Labor's Digital Education Revolution computers for schools program.

Politicians may be professional baby-kissers, but now the Liberals are snatching computers out of the hands of those same babies. This would not, on an emotional level, seem to be the kind of thing that would endear a political party to voters — who now have, for all the controversy, more and better computers in schools than they used to. I will leave debates as to their relevance to education for another time and venue, but for now suffice it to say that the Liberals' cost-cutting bluster has now gotten personal.

Without any clear alternatives to the NBN, and now with retrograde and partisan policies that seem determined to return the country's ICT posture to 2007 levels, the Liberals are hardly making a case for progress. Their policies would return the country to telecommunications limbo — and, equally strangely, they're doing it far enough ahead of the election that Labor will have ample time to paint them as the backflipping, gelatinous-policied Luddites they are making themselves out to be.

Without any clear alternatives to the NBN, and now with retrograde and partisan policies that seem determined to return the country's ICT posture to 2007 levels, the Liberals are hardly making a case for progress.

Labor Senator and IT-industry veteran Kate Lundy wasted no time going on the attack, labelling the Opposition's repeated backflips and apparent lack of policy as "absolutely appalling" and "schizophrenic". And she's right: ever since the current-state NBN was announced, the Coalition's telecommunications policy has consisted of little more than baseless opposition and no real alternatives.

And that's because there really are none. That fibre-optic communications are necessary to progress the country's infrastructure, is hardly a contentious suggestion. While a wireless network such as Opel might have served a good intermediate option years ago, the horse has already bolted on that one: for Australia to back down on the NBN at this point would not only set us back a telecommunications decade (which is a century in human terms) but turn us into an international laughingstock and telecommunications backwater.

That might have been OK 15 years ago, but our regional neighbours are pushing forward with telecommunications upgrades that are already leaving us in the dust. The rest of the world recognises the importance of fast, widely-available and effective telecommunications for economic and social progress, but the Liberals can't see beyond the dollar signs. They're quick to count the cost of the NBN, but what they are not considering is the cost of not building the NBN. It's like trying to get your great-aunt Mindy to give up her Telstra home-phone service for a Skype account: no matter what the benefits, she's going to stick with what she knows.

When it comes to telecommunications, what the Liberals know is Telstra, plain and simple. John Howard's early days were occupied by the introduction of Optus and the establishment of formal pro-competition regulation, but that regulation failed to help the rest of the industry escape the telecoms giant's shadow for most of the past decade. Sol Trujillo was the perfect foil to John Howard because he showed the government exactly how ineffective free-market competition can be when the big guy doesn't want to play fair. David Thodey has engineered changes in Telstra that would have been unthinkable under Trujillo, because the government's pressure has forced him to look forward — but if that pressure were removed, I don't think he'd be moving so eagerly just for change's sake.

The Liberals can't see beyond the dollar signs. They're quick to count the cost of the NBN, but what they are not considering is the cost of not building the NBN. It's like trying to get your great-aunt Mindy to give up her Telstra home-phone service for a Skype account: no matter what the benefits, she's going to stick with what she knows.

Given their knee-jerk opposition to the NBN and lack of a better alternative (that being, because there isn't one), the Liberals are effectively arguing for a return to the 2007 status quo — where Telstra was free to hold back the market and build at its own pace. The Libs love this, because while it came off as unpalatable to those in the industry, it allowed the government to keep costs low by shifting the blame — and the responsibility — for Australia's telecommunications to Telstra.

I saw Kate Lundy sitting next to two Liberal senators during recent NBN Senate Estimates hearings, where she was cut off several times by Mary Jo Foley, one of many Liberal senators wrestling with how to oppose the NBN without alienating constituencies that are crying out for better telecommunications. Lundy had no interruptions, however, in her beautiful response to Hockey's disaster this week: "I'm at a bit of a loss because the Opposition can't even seek refuge in Telstra," she said, "because Telstra has said its copper network is five minutes to midnight. And I know enough about it to know ADSL technology will never deliver what we need as a nation going forward."

Let's face it: the only party with billions to upgrade Australia's telecommunications infrastructure — other than Telstra — is the government. If the government isn't spending, as it didn't during the Howard years, well, there is only one conclusion: Telstra under a Liberal government will resume its mantle as the country's dominant telecoms provider — and we'll all be stuck with current hobbled ADSL2+ services over a copper network that is well and truly on its last legs.

I suspect this is hardly the outcome that even the Liberals would explicitly support, but this week they've shown themselves more than willing to put dogma ahead of logic. The party is making such a blithering mess of itself these days, what with policies promising Australians fewer services and a total lack of forward vision, that it's hard to imagine them getting elected. But just in case Labor manages to score an own goal, I'm considering sourcing some 1970's-era rotary phones: when the PSTN is left to rot by a Next G-focused Telstra and not even Joe Hockey can get a decent home service, they may be all we have to fall back on.

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