NBN construction targets were too ambitious: Conroy

Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has admitted that Labor's targets for NBN construction were more ambitious than the construction companies could handle.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has admitted that Labor was "overly ambitious" in its construction targets for NBN Co while in government, but he has said Labor will keep up the fight for fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) in opposition.

"Did you miss me?" Conroy opened with as he stood at the podium to deliver his first speech since he stood down as communications minister in June at the Australian Computer Society Telecoms Address luncheon in Sydney today.

The former minister launched a fierce defence of Labor's AU$37.4 billion majority fibre-to-the-premises National Broadband Network (NBN) policy. He said contrary to popular belief, the FttP policy wasn't devised on the back of a napkin on a plane with then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He said that the switch from the original fibre-to-the-node (FttN) plan to FttP was derived out of three factors: Telstra's resistance to structural reform, the Global Financial Crisis, and the expert panel appointed by the government that said that FttN was not a cost-effective path to full FttP.

"Because I wanted to propose to Cabinet a different course, as per standard Cabinet practice, I needed to obtain the PM's approval," he said.

"This was in the midst of the GFC and that conversation was on a plane. The extent of consultation both through government agencies and through Cabinet committees is already on the public record."

But four years on and missed construction targets, Conroy admitted that the construction industry had failed to "mobilise resources" on time, and that if he had his time over, he would have not have expected so much from the companies.

"I think we underestimated the capacity of the construction industry to respond to the challenge and that has led to the majority of the publicity around the alleged blowouts, not that anybody can point to one," he said. "The construction model could be legitimately criticised."

Part of this was due to the government asking NBN Co to pick up the fibre construction for new housing estates, something he said NBN Co "wasn't prepared for", as well as the government's decision to include the 34 percent of premises in Australia that are part of a multi-dwelling unit (MDU).

"Saying that 34 percent of Australians were not left behind and weren't able to get access to the [1 Gbps] and beyond, was a tough decision because it meant MDUs were going to be dealt with on a much more rigirous basis than just putting a box into the basement, whatever that means," he said.

"[The construction targets] were always ambitious [and] that was an area where we were overly ambitious."

But in seeking to protect his legacy, Conroy said that any further delays in the NBN rollout would be on the head of new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and his decision to review the design of the NBN.

"The biggest threat to that ramp up will be the extent of any delay as Mr Turnbull's new board goes through all its reviews," he said.

"Any further delays to the rollout beyond the schedule in the revised plan that has now been submitted to Mr Turnbull ... will be a consequence of his policies and his change in policy agenda."

With the Coalition now abandoning its plan to have the Productivity Commission conduct a cost-benefit analysis for the NBN, Conroy labelled earlier criticism of Labor's decision not to do a cost-benefit analysis as "complete bullshit".

Labor leadership

The speech comes as yesterday Labor caucus voted for who will lead the Labor Party in opposition. These votes will make up 50 percent of the total vote, while the rank and file Labor members will make up the other 50 percent. Ahead of the announcement of the winner on Sunday, Conroy was full of praise for Labor leadership contender Anthony Albanese for representing Conroy in the House of Representatives and "mocking Malcolm wherever necessary", but he said yesterday he ultimately voted for Bill Shorten.

Conroy declined to say if he was seeking to return to the communications portfolio, stating that the decision on who will be the next Shadow Communications Minister will ultimately sit with either Albanese or Shorten after Sunday.

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