When Stephen Conroy announced that the government had abandoned its NBN bid and would build a fibre-to-the-premise network instead, he had Kevin Rudd standing next to him in a show of strong support. When Tony Smith announced the Coalition's communications policy this week, Tony Abbott was ... wait a second, where was he?
Oh yes. Abbott was at lunch somewhere, doing nothing in particular except, it seems, trying to be as far away from his sacrificial lamb and his lame broadband policy as he possibly could. Either that, or he was trying to dodge the inevitable technical questions an appearance would have involved. But in so doing, Abbott only confirmed that he not only does not understand broadband (as he has openly confessed) but does not understand why it's important to every Australian.
(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)
One almost felt sorry for Smith when he was peppered with questions about the policy that he did his best to ignore. In fact, by my call, and that of basically everybody tweeting at #itelectionforum during the great debate between Smith, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, Smith had his policy (and his proverbial arse) handed to him on a plate. If only Conroy hadn't gone off the rails about the filter, he could have declared the day a resounding win.
In an appearance as cringe-worthy as the MTV Movie Awards, Smith simply reiterated his party's policy and offered no answers when Conroy pushed for details. Throughout the whole thing, Smith maintained a sorry-guys-I-know-this-sucks-too composure that made him look like a junior diplomat who is suffering through a post as ambassador to Mongolia as a sacrifice on his way to a more choice posting down the track.
Not that there's anything wrong with Mongolia, mind you. But, based on his showing, if Tony Smith has what it takes to be communications minister, I'm the Queen of England. Smith, who, most people may not realise because it doesn't impact their everyday lives, has made a habit out of avoiding the IT media and has been all but invisible since his appointment was announced back in December, could do little more than sit like the proverbial stunned mullet, repeating "43 billion" over and over, with increasing emphasis on the B as if trying to remind us that a billion is a really big number.
Smith maintained a sorry-guys-I-know-this-sucks-too composure that made him look like a junior diplomat who is suffering through a post as ambassador to Mongolia as a sacrifice on his way to a more choice posting down the track ... based on his showing, if Tony Smith has what it takes to be communications minister, I'm the Queen of England.
This seems to be the sum total of the Liberal's objections to the NBN, which more enlightened people understand is essential to burying the mistakes of the past and moving forward to a telecoms future unencumbered by Telstra's heavy-handed monopoly. Yet the same Liberals are quite happy to spend billions on other programs, so to say they're concerned with saving money isn't exactly correct.
The real truth is that the Coalition just does not "get" communications; Tony Abbott's confessions on the 7:30 Report (watch it here and bring popcorn) made this eminently clear.
It's hard to choose the most damaging moment in Smith's performance, but I might nominate his answer when Stephen Conroy pressed for details about what wireless spectrum the Liberal's wireless networks would run on, given that there is no spectrum available in Australia.
Smith stammered for a moment and then referenced the "digital dividend" spectrum that will be freed with the switch-off of digital television. What he did not mention, nor did he need to, is the fact that that spectrum won't be available until 2014 at the earliest, which will be after the next election. What he did not need to mention, at least to any of the Twitterati that had tuned in, was that he does not appear to have a clue about spectrum, wireless technologies or much else in his portfolio.
Throughout the entire painful hour, Smith looked like he had a terrible case of gas, but was trying to maintain his composure; several Twitterers were trying to predict when he would break down and cry. But we should have expected as much: Smith is the embodiment of the apathy and even contempt with which Tony Abbott's Liberals have addressed the entire tech sector.
In fact, not only did Abbott skip the launch of the party's communications policy entirely, leaving Smith to front a hostile media crowd demanding to know why the Coalition insists on feeding the Australian public shit and telling them it's chocolate, but he did so on the heels of delivering a 3300-word campaign launch speech in which he did not mention the words "broadband", "internet", "technology", "communications", "network" or "infrastructure". Not once.
Not only did Abbott skip the launch of the party's communications policy entirely, leaving Smith to front a hostile media crowd demanding to know why the Coalition insists on feeding the Australian public shit and telling them it's chocolate, but he did so on the heels of delivering a 3300-word campaign launch speech in which he did not mention the words "broadband", "internet", "technology", "communications", "network" or "infrastructure". Not once.
It has never been more obvious that the Coalition is the wrong choice if you care at all about Australia's ICT future. The party's just not interested. Not really, not at all. It is proffering a token amount of funding to put in a bit of backhaul, then will hand the keys to Australia's telecommunications industry back to Telstra. The Coalition's free-market faith was already proven short-sighted and ineffectual during 11 years of Howard government, yet Smith was still adamant that he would not separate Telstra as Stephen Conroy, love him or hate him, has so courageously done.
It was not entirely Conroy's debate, however; his insistence on promoting the internet filter made for the weakest part of his performance, and he started to get flustered to the point where I was half expecting him to say something about "spams and scams". He even went so far as to say that he would persist with the pursuit of the filter, something about changing classification guidelines or some such nonsense, at which point Ludlam, the model of composure and sensibility, interjected that such a pursuit would be a waste of resources given that the Coalition and Greens will block any filter legislation.
If it were ever clear that Conroy's adherence to this unwanted, unnecessary filter is being driven by the faceless backroom policy whores, this debate was it. No politically-savvy minister would stand in front of his opponents, a very savvy media and the Australian public and proclaim his single-minded pursuit of a policy that's already dead in the water, unless he had ulterior motives for doing so; the Australian Christian Lobby's hey-that's-not-what-we-agreed reaction last week supports the idea that Conroy is the puppet rather than the puppeteer when it comes to this particular policy.
If he could just have backed away from it instead of pursuing what now appear to be desperate measures, he would have owned the debate by far. But widespread hatred for the filter meant that the popular vote went to Ludlam, who was happy to play the voice of reason as Conroy annihilated Smith on the NBN and himself on the filter. Ludlam proved an eloquent, logical speaker who by far won over the assembled Twitterati, and no doubt secured the Greens enough votes to filibuster the filter for good.
Now, if Conroy can just admit defeat on the filter and Smith can go back under the rock he's been hiding under for the past nine months, the rest of the country can get on with the cause of progress — as long as Labor's other policies don't turn off the electorate and force us to another decade of using the internet like it's 2002.
What did you think of the policy and the debate? Are Abbott and Smith really our technological saviours? And did the debate affect your vote?