Libs should have joined Labor's NBN telework love-in

National Telework Week naturally spruiked Labor's NBN vision, but it also highlighted the Coalition's utter lack of vision.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It may have had a little more similarity to Apple's infamous 1984 commercial than Labor intended, but there was nonetheless lots of excitement — in political terms — at the launch event for National Telework Week (NTW), an entirely theoretical construct that was kicked off with a flurry of high-profile cheerleading, and which eventually tapered off into oblivion, much like the plot of Quantum of Solace or the factual content of an Alan Jones broadcast.


Whether you actually papered you car with NTW bumper stickers, tattooed "working in my daks and loving it" across your back, or simply grabbed your things and told your boss to stick his office job where the sun don't shine, the event was a focal point for a combination of political aspirations, mixed in with a liberal helping of National Broadband Network (NBN) advocacy.

The NBN, we were told for the millionth time, as Labor pollies jumped on the bandwagon, will enable high-quality face-to-face videoconferencing that will make working from home just like working at the office — only without the territorial fights over refrigerator shelf space.

This rhetoric is interesting for several reasons. One is that it represents formal recognition of something that many people have known for years: that, depending on your personality, you can work just effectively from home as you can from the office — more effectively, for many of us.

Even more interesting, however, is the way that telework has become the poster child for the NBN, when companies that are actually teleworking happily point out, over and over, that technology does not a teleworker make.

It's quite possible, after all, to telework with a telephone and a dial-up connection, although of course you wouldn't want to. It's better to use ADSL, it will also work over the Coalition's fibre-to-the-node (FttN) plan, and, of course, it would be the best quality of all over Labor's fibre NBN.

Teleworking, after all, is all about communication, not just immersive videoconferencing — and history has shown that people will find ways to communicate no matter what the technical limitations are of the channels available to them. The people of Westeros, for example, seem to do quite well using a poultry-to-the-premises network, although I do admit that the latency is less than ideal. But they get by, and they adapt their expectations accordingly. Where there's a bill, after all, there's a way.

To telework effectively, do we need face-to-face video? When a phone call will suffice, do we really need to have face-to-face meetings with teleworkers sitting at home in their underwear?

To telework effectively, then, do we actually need face-to-face video? I know workplace-culture experts advise that teleworkers dress up for work and go through all the machinations of their normal working commute — I personally have tried pretending to weave through traffic and shout obscenities out of an imaginary window at other imaginary drivers, albeit with little luck — but when a phone call will suffice, do we really need face-to-face meetings with teleworkers sitting at home in their underwear?

Isn't part of the charm of having colleagues telework the fact that that we don't actually have to see them as much?

Forget saving the environment; perhaps you'd really like to see teleworking introduced for that guy in the next cubicle with the bad BO and obnoxiously loud phone voice.

It does seem a bit ironic — all these billions spent so that we can eject workers from the workplace, then get good-enough-quality video so that we can keep an eye on them throughout the working day. This digital Panopticon is the same kind of surveillance state that's currently afforded to politicians and celebrities — and I'm not convinced that the video alone will make people more productive.

Yet, there is much truth in the drum beating around teleworking: it is a time saver, and it is a productivity enhancer. And you get to work without pants, which is a luxury afforded to only a select few office-bound professions. And, of course, a select few politicians.

Which brings me to my next point: Malcolm Turnbull should've been there.

Because far more than simply catering to Australians' sartorial preferences, the NWT event served to highlight the yawning political chasm around the NBN.

Long-time NBN watchers will know that Labor has been working hard, and not always effectively, to build a use case around its NBN — but, in all this time, not even around obvious tasks like teleworking has the Coalition bothered to elucidate any kind of a vision for a broadband-enabled Australia.

Labor could have videoconferenced Turnbull in over his home internet connection. That kind of jerky video and mismatched sound would have been a sick pleasure to watch — and a reminder of why a properly built NBN is actually going to be helpful for delivering objectives like this.

No; Turnbull has been too busy beating on about the cost of Labor's NBN and promoting digital carrier pigeons as a supposedly viable alternative. Yet, as you step back and look at how Labor is promoting the NBN, exercises like NTW are a significant step forward, because they not only flesh out a viable use case for the NBN, they also commit the government itself to lead by example.

We have not seen this kind of leadership from Malcolm Turnbull, whose idea of an NBN use case is to wave his iPad around, or Tony Abbott, who still seems to think that fibre is something to sprinkle on his morning helping of yoghurt and fruit.

Surely, even if the Coalition disagrees with the medium by which teleworking will be delivered, it cannot disagree with the message? Surely, no matter what your preferred party is, there is great value in reducing the burden of office work — and in facilitating increased inclusiveness within the workforce?

Government use of NBN-enabled telework, we were told at the event, will particularly target disabled workers who have the mind and the will to work, but lack the physical means to get to an office. This is an admirable goal in anyone's books, even if many such people are already able to telework by using existing technologies.

Of course, their ability to do so depends more on the boss' willingness to cede some control than it does on the quality of their videoconferencing connection. But these are little details that can be worked out later on; in the short term, Malcolm Turnbull should have been at the NTW launch to show that the Coalition does, in fact, believe that it is spruiking a broadband policy with more purpose than simply being a me-too oppositional effort to counter Labor's NBN.

Sure, it was Labor's event, but Labor would have benefited by having the Coalition there, because bipartisan support for the teleworking goals would have shown that the government's commitment to teleworking isn't just some left-wing Commie pinko construct — that it also supports teleworking for the huge number of Australians who voted against Labor.

To make proceedings even more fun, Labor could have videoconferenced Turnbull in via Skype from his iPad on his home internet connection. That kind of jerky video and mismatched sound would have been a sick pleasure to watch — and a reminder of why a properly built NBN is actually going to be helpful for delivering objectives like this.

Time and time again, the Coalition has shown that it has absolutely no vision whatsoever for Australia's broadband economy. In arguing the NBN on purely technical and cost bases, the Coalition has completely missed the point that was evident in the fact that Labor bothered to set up NTW at all: The times, they really are a-changing.

Were his party genuinely interested in promoting FttN as a way to improve Australians' lives, Turnbull should have made the case for inclusion in the NTW launch as a show of bipartisanship.

"We support the NTW message even if we don't support Labor's vision for the NBN" would have been an incredibly strong message from Turnbull, but there was nothing from him about NTW except silence. And that, no matter what your sartorial inclinations are, says all you need to know about the parties' differing visions for the NBN.

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