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The Tasmanian devil's in the detail

This week, Stephen Conroy showed with great certainty that the NBN remains a touch-and-go affair with no clear timeline, a relatively questionable lack of governance, and lots of unresolved mysteries.
Written by David Braue, Contributor on

Back in April, an enthusiastic Kevin Rudd unleashed his NBN vision and stated, with what seemed to be no small amount of certainty, that Tasmania would be the first state to be NBN-ified, with a roll-out by Aurora Energy beginning in July.

This came after closed-door meetings at the highest level, after which Rudd and Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett detailed the Tasmanian roll-out.

This week, Stephen Conroy showed with great certainty that the NBN remains a touch-and-go affair with no clear timeline, a relatively questionable lack of governance, and lots of unresolved mysteries that would seem to question the contention that the government's pièce de résistance is actually going anywhere at all.

Actually, what he grudgingly said is that Tasmania will indeed have to undergo a tender process for its part of the NBN — seemingly putting an end to rampant industry speculation that the contract would be slipped in the back door as a contract extension.

Call me a pessimist, but given that there are just two weeks left in July, the odds of there being a complete tender process this month — or, dare I say, this quarter — seem quite small indeed. Construction will thus be delayed indefinitely as due process takes its course, as it of course must. Yet for Conroy to take so long to acknowledge that a tender is essential seems, well, surprising — especially since Rudd had seemingly already wrapped up the Tasmanian deal back in April.

Senator Stephen Conroy only conceded a Tasmanian NBN tender was essential after pressure from journalists. (Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park image by Wayne McLean, CC2.5)

Deadlines slip, problems emerge, projects drag on: we all know this, and we expect it. Yet the government needs to show leadership in Tasmania, where the roll-out will set the tone for the rest of this massive project. Conroy's concession that a tender was essential — something even part-time students of government would understand all too well — was only dragged out of him after a presentation in which he asserted the Commonwealth and Tasmanian governments were already near to finalising negotiations.

Huh? How can they be finalising negotiations if the tender hasn't even been issued yet? Or are these negotiations simply reinforcing the understanding of the NBN's policy goals within Tasmania? And if the latter is true, what of the statements back in April, when Rudd and Bartlett — whom Conroy yesterday labelled, presumably affectionately, as "a geek" — stood up with great conviction to say they had worked out all the details?

That statement, made on the day after the NBN announcement, was always to be taken as grandstanding intended to show that the process had legs and would quickly deliver benefits for Australians. But now it appears to simply have been inconveniently-timed enthusiasm, lost in the dust of history — suggesting that the Labor party has an increasingly tenuous grasp on time lines, due process, transparency, and the other things it will need to deliver the NBN.

It's all part of a strategy in which hard fact is at a premium and empty political gamesmanship the order of the day. Conroy seems determined to build the NBN by press release

It's all part of a strategy in which hard fact is at a premium and empty political gamesmanship the order of the day. Conroy seems determined to build the NBN by press release — such as the release he promised, in lieu of straight answers, "which will be able to identify some of those issues you've raised soon". That, of course, is code for "I don't have a well-considered answer for you, but I'm happy to go back to my office and consult with my policy advisers to work out a terse, vaguely-worded statement that I hope will placate your journalistic hounding for a few days".

Now, we cannot overestimate the work involved in getting the NBN project off the ground: this is complex, laborious, expensive, difficult stuff. Yet while nobody expects Labor to build this Rome in a day, being deliberately vague at this point is hardly reassuring to an industry that — judging by the landslide of 120-plus submissions to the telecommunications regulatory reform discussion paper — has quite strong opinions about the need for real, progressive change in an area that's crying out for direction.

Setting (and missing) vague deadlines, waffling on critical issues of policy, and avoiding direct questions are hardly ways to inspire confidence. Delivering real, concrete steps — such as kicking off the NBN implementation study, or actually issuing a tender for the Tasmanian NBN component rather than simply admitting under pressure that it's inevitable — have a much more significant benefit.

Rudd was happy to dangle Tasmania's promised NBN as an example of his telecoms policy prowess, but so far the only thing that has changed on the Apple Isle is the commissioning of the long-delayed Basslink. Sure, that's a big step and will provide critical supporting infrastructure for the NBN — but it's only the beginning of a very long process that seems to already be dragging compared with the government's optimistic early predictions.

Whether these predictions were borne out of sheer optimism or bald ignorance is yet to be seen — but unless he and Conroy can show more clarity and proactivity around the process they're managing, they risk shrouding the rest of the NBN ramp-up in confusion and disarray.

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