Years ago, I was fishing in a faraway lake one morning and a big fish took my lure. Long hours we fought, me reeling in a few centimetres at a time, then giving way as it looked like he was pulling too hard and might snap the line. A battle of wills and a battle to the death, it was — and it was only as the sun began to set, two days later, that I finally wrestled what looked to be a two metre-long salmon alongside the boat.
OK, I admit it: like all the best fish stories, elements of the previous paragraph may have been exaggerated. Now that I think about it, our battle might only have lasted five minutes. The fish was big, but probably more like 50cm long. And no, I didn't lash it to the boat, Old Man and the Sea-style, only to have it consumed by sharks during the trip home. It was a fresh-water lake so that would have been impossible — even if I had managed to get the fish in the boat instead of watching, powerless, as it looked at me, shook its head, spat out my lure and swam back into the depths.
Big or small, that was The One That Got Away. And, unfortunately, it is now entirely possible that something similar may happen with the National Broadband Network (NBN).
After a remarkable day earlier this week in which Kevin Rudd demonstrated once and for all that he is as self-obsessed and egomaniacal as Julia Gillard, the Labor Party has begun rending itself apart in a jaw-dropping display of bilious discontent. The country is now in the awful position of being run either by a scheming backstabber with far from unanimous support in her own cabinet, or by a scheming backstabber with far from unanimous support in his own cabinet.
I'd suspect most voters are just fed up with both of them. And, either way, the NBN seems doomed.
There are few scenarios in which one can imagine this kind of behaviour is going to go unpunished by the electorate. Even if she wins on Monday, the odds of Julia Gillard leading the Labor Party to a 2013 election win seem smaller than ever: regardless of her not-insignificant policy achievements, she will ultimately be judged with the same superficial disdain that has plagued her since the coup she instigated.
The real casualties will be the thousands of people [working] to implement the Labor Government's policies...
Whoever ends up as Prime Minister, the real casualties of the coming reckoning will be the thousands of people who have worked tirelessly to implement the Labor Government's policies — and now face another 18 months of hard work executing policies that will, in all likelihood, be reversed by a coalition government.
Whether Rudd's intention was to turn the last half of Gillard's term into a lame-duck debacle, I cannot tell. But if there is a more sisyphean, soul-destroying job than working hard to implement something you know will soon be undone, I cannot at this moment think of it. And if there is a single project most likely to be affected by such a change of power, there are a few more obvious for culling than the NBN — which currently employs over 1300 people within NBN Co and has created private-sector employment for thousands more.
Ditto Stephen Conroy who — love him or hate him — has made the subjugation of Telstra and the delivery of the NBN the cornerstone of his tenure as communications minister.
That he has all but succeeded in fundamentally re-architecting our telecommunications market is testament to his tenacity, pugnaciousness and unwavering support for change. Yet if Conroy is relegated to the back bench come next year, he will face the soul-destroying torture of watching his years of hard work being wound back, one by one.
Like my fish of so many years ago, he will struggle until the last moment and watch, powerless, as what was nearly within his grasp slips away once again. And all he will be able to do is sit back, cover his mouth in horror and watch as the Liberal Party returns Telstra's monopoly and condemns the country to the demonstrably fickle whimsy of bloody-minded telcos. Even significant legacies of Conroy's time as minister — such as the completion of a formal separation structure with Telstra, the regulatory changes around NBN Co's operating environment, the government's successful deals with Telstra and Optus — would no doubt be diluted or repealed as the coalition pursued its own agenda.
Yet Labor and its dreams aren't the only likely casualty from this fiasco. Once the media tires of coverage about the winner of the leadership diva-off on Monday, the spotlight will invariably shift to the Opposition.
Remember that Tony Abbott was also installed by the slimmest of margins in a similar coup against Malcolm Turnbull. I'd say it's about as likely for Kevin Rudd to go to the polls with Julia Gillard as his deputy as it is that Turnbull will continue to sit on his hands, quietly fighting the NBN via press release as shadow communications minister while Abbott — a man who lacks the intelligence, vision and tact to be Prime Minister — gets all the glory.
If Turnbull has an ounce of ambition around him — and history suggests that he does — he will have taken the events of this week as a sign that it's time for change. If Labor blood is to be shed, can we be surprised if Turnbull gets out the proverbial knife and does a bit of backstabbing of his own?
The alternative, I would imagine, would be unthinkable to him: three or more years stuck in a middling technology-related portfolio executing the blind madness of a party leader who has campaigned against Labor and its NBN vision based on empty sound bites and a fundamental lack of understanding about the real issues it will solve. Like the Grinch stealing presents from the well-meaning Whos, deep in his heart, I can even imagine Turnbull would shed a few quiet tears as he did it.
If you have not already read it, I highly recommend you block off a chunk of time and work your way through the 6000-word-plus NBN treatise by ABC journalist Nick Ross, who has long been troubled by the misrepresentations around the NBN and has left no holds barred in his attack on the campaign of misinformation and blind opposition to the project.
Ross goes to great length to illustrate why the coverage of a misinformed media has perpetuated the kind of deceptions peddled by Tony Abbott's Liberals, but on reflection I think the gist of his piece — like many I have previously written here — can be boiled down to one fundamental issue.
Labor, it must be said, has spent all its energy selling the NBN based on what it is — and spent precious little time selling the project based on why it is. This has allowed opponents to distract the public with petty debates about 50Mbps vs. 100Mbps, fixed networks vs. wireless, FTTN vs. FTTP, FTTP vs. ADSL — all of which are peripherally important to the very real issues that brought the NBN into existence in the first place.
Labor has spent all its energy selling the NBN based on what it is — and spent precious little time selling the project based on why it is.
Love it or hate it, Labor's solution to those issues has proved to be more aggressive and ambitious — and, yes, more expensive — than any put before. It has also made the most concrete progress, and come closer to fulfilment than any other. For the project to meet an untimely end not because of its own lack of merit, but because Labor couldn't prevent it from becoming collateral damage of outrageous and self-destructive party infighting, would be a tragedy not only for the people directly involved but for the country's future as a whole.
Yet we are now faced with the prospect of a hobbled NBN — not because the NBN is inherently bad, but because Gillard and Rudd have once again failed to sell their respective merits to the public correctly. They have allowed the current debate to become a battle of the sexes and personalities; as with their NBN mistake, they have allowed the debate to be refocused on who is running the country, rather than focusing on what Labor will do for the country. And in the end, it doesn't matter so much who is running the country, as it matters how effectively they can do so.
That is why the NBN may be dramatically diminished once our next Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, begins working with heir apparent and newly appointed Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to dismantle the NBN as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. By the time they're done, our telecommunications industry will have been set back 10 years — and Rudd and Gillard will be sitting on opposite sides of the opposition benches, casting dirty glances at each other as they quietly lament everything that could have been.
What do you think? Has Rudd's mutiny doomed Labor to an election loss? Or could a reaffirmed Gillard salvage her party, and the NBN it created?