NBN's convoy of no consequence

The latest in the series of campaigns trying to convince Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to keep the NBN as fibre to the home is not too dissimilar to campaigns waged against the last government.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

One of the ways the government spent AU$20 million in one financial year advertising the benefits of the full fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) National Broadband Network (NBN) was through the production of an NBN information kit, including the production of a pro-NBN newspaper called Connecting Australia.

The production of the newspapers was mocked by then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on YouTube, who joked that NBN Co was not a threat to the newspaper industry, but was "absolutely committed to it".

I had just that in mind when I saw the latest effort to get now-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to keep the FttP NBN rollout in its current form. A crowdsourcing campaign has raised just under AU$40,000 at the time of writing seeking to advertise in Turnbull's local rag, the Wentworth Courier, asking him to keep the NBN.

The group starting the event flew past its original goal of AU$15,000, and is now pushing to put ads in the newspapers located in marginal electorates.

This follows a Change.org petition making a similar request to Turnbull, which now has over 250,000 signatures.

The online grassroots movement to keep the NBN as fibre to the premises is impressive in size and in passion, but the only information and documentation the Coalition is going to end up looking at when deciding which NBN to go with is the 60-day review being conducted into the company right now.

AU$40,000 is an impressive amount to collect in just under a week, but the last government spent over AU$20 million extolling the virtues of a full-fibre NBN, and that wasn't enough to save the government, or convince the Coalition to completely adopt the policy.

There is a theory that a groundswell in support and a grassroots campaign will convince the Coalition to see the full-fibre light and abandon any plans to build thousands of nodes and use the existing copper line in places where it is more cost effective to do so. It's possible, but I'm also reminded of the campaigns waged against the last government on the issue of the carbon tax.

In particular, the Convoy of No Confidence. In 2011, an angry mob of 300 people sat on the lawns of parliament to be addressed by shock jock Alan Jones, as well as Coalition MPs including now-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Warren Truss, and Barnaby Joyce. In addition to a number of protesters parking their trucks in our nation's capital, it was hyped that it was going to close down Canberra for the day, all to protest the government putting a price on carbon emissions.

Ultimately, it had little impact on Canberra, and on the ALP. Labor MP Anthony Albanese labelled the protest as the "Convoy of No Consequence". Now, NBN advocates will get their own convoy of no consequence. While 250,000 signatures is a lot more than 300 pensioners on the lawns of Parliament House, I imagine the impact will be roughly the same.

Turnbull has already said that while he welcomes more advertising in his local paper, he doesn't buy into the ad-funding campaign.

"While I respect the enthusiasm of those who have contributed to crowdfunding this advertising, I know the Wentworth community very well, and overwhelmingly, they are very keen to find out how much this project is going to cost, in time and dollars, and how a rational government might go about making the rollout more efficient," he told Fairfax.

One of the supporters of the NBN project, when I questioned how successful the petition would be, said that this is just one of many stages in trying to convince Turnbull to change his mind. I'm interested to see what happens next.

It would take nothing short of mimicking the response to the recently canceled Climate Council to crowdfund an FttP company to get the attention of Canberra.

In Turnbull's world, money talks, and maybe the only true way to convince him is for charitable NBN fans to offer to make up the difference.

But in that world, crowdfunding a company to extend the FttN rollout to homes reinforces the Coalition's position, and validates its approach of minimising government borrowing while decreasing the time needed for the rollout.

The more funds that NBN fans hand over, the more it can be seen as the market responding to the government getting out of the way. The real-life execution of traditional economic theory.

It's everything that a Liberal communications minister could ask for.

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