Turnbull should demonstrate broader comms nous

However you feel about the national broadband network, it’s hard to dispute that lately, Australia's Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband Malcolm Turnbull has been struggling to find new traction in his arguments against the project.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Most of his arguments about the NBN, like most policies under Tony Abbott's Coalition, seem to have relied on a modicum of fact, a generous dose of blind stonewalling, and general Abbott-esque revulsion of the Labor government.

Now, with Labor's popularity apparently on the rise, a major element of Coalition politicking has been defanged. Turnbull must up his game and stop being a bottomless font of NBN opposition (an area in which, despite the noise, he has ultimately accomplished little more than generating a massive stream of oppositional media appearances, and negative but ineffectual press coverage).

The Coalition is now sliding towards an election-time NBN policy that's not much different to that of Labor; in the end, for all the sound and fury, I bet an elected Abbott would end up grudgingly accepting the NBN as unchangeable, despite his long-held philosophical aversions.

It's not too far from Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu's grudging continuation of Labor's smart-meter rollout, after a study determined that it would be too expensive to stop the roll-out and run two different networks concurrently.

Indeed, hating the NBN is getting harder and harder every day, as Labor announces one new positive-sounding NBN target area after another: this week, for example, it singled out 16,600 householders in three Queensland cities who will be able to access the NBN by next year.

Then it announced the opening of its Gold Coast call centre, which will create 130 new jobs in a state whose Liberal leaders are shedding jobs left, right, and centre.

If it's safe to say that many of them will vote Labor to simply ensure that they get that NBN connection, or that in-demand job of answering phone calls — what will that mean for the Coalition?

Indeed, even if it's not yet available in your lounge room, it is not incorrect to argue that the NBN is gaining momentum as a platform for both telecommunications progress and broader policy issues, like the creation of jobs.

If we accept that Turnbull, to date, has failed to delineate a clear and coherent alternative NBN policy with enough credibility to swing voters the Coalition's way — does that, therefore, mean that Abbott's crew has no hope of winning next year's election based on Turnbull's telecommunications portfolio?

Not at all.

Turnbull could create a significant ideological divide between the Coalition and Labor by publicly talking more about such legislation, and its potentially harmful effect on innovation and the privacy of everyday Australians.

Although he's sure to keep up his token NBN opposition through next year's election, Turnbull may find more traction by broadening his scope a bit. Indeed, his almost exclusive focus on the NBN suggests that he may have forgotten that his communications portfolio encompasses a broad range of issues, many of which have little to do directly with the NBN.

The furore over data-retention laws is a good example. Here, we have a disastrously intrusive proposition that has failed to win public support, has put Attorney-General Nicola Roxon on the back foot, and could become a nightmare election-year for Labor if the Coalition makes it so.

Desire to protect privacy is an extremely non-partisan policy, and it's one area where the Coalition can starkly differentiate itself from Labor by resoundingly rejecting the current government's proposals.

Coalition members have already done so, of course, but this is one debate that's not going away overnight. If Turnbull wants to win hearts and minds, he should consider elevating the discussion over data retention and hammering home why it's a toxic policy that should be resoundingly rejected by voters.

Unless, of course, he's actually in favour. In which case, the public deserves to know that too.

Ditto internet filtering, which continues to haunt Senator Stephen Conroy, despite a prolonged period of buck-passing on the government's part. The Coalition is apparently against it, but Turnbull seems to have little more to say on the issue. Conroy was recently blasted after he suggested that Telstra and Optus had implemented the government's mandatory filtering, when in fact, they had only implemented mandatory filtering that nobody seems to be as concerned about.

The difference, of course, is that their filters are private-sector reactions to very valid concerns about execrable practices, such as child pornography. For some time, Labor represented the expansion of these protections to an unacceptable degree — and if he's smart, Turnbull will redirect some of his ferocity on the NBN to revive that point in the public debate.

Copyright laws are another area: in response to widespread piracy, Australia is currently in the throes of subjugating its citizens to the depredations of US-centric copyright holders. Turnbull's beloved private sector has finally begun digging itself out of the hole that BitTorrent created, as usage drops in response to a plethora of legal content services. This may not only reaffirm his faith in private-sector ingenuity, but also, if he chooses, supporting a policy platform that rejects over-intrusive copyright measures.

After all, heavy-handed copyright measures represent as much government intrusion into the operation of the private sector as they present opportunities for its benefit. Turnbull could create a significant ideological divide between the Coalition and Labor by publicly talking more about such legislation, and its potentially harmful effect on innovation and the privacy of everyday Australians.

There are many other issues in telecommunications about which Turnbull weighs in quite rarely: content regulation, for example, or the looming digital TV switch-off.

Private-sector stimulus, telecommunications service standards, wireless network congestion, spectrum auction policy, and even his plans to prevent Singapore and Hong Kong suborning Australia as centres of cloud-computing excellence would all be viable topics for discussion.

Or, Turnbull could just keep on banging on about the NBN right up until election day, promising details of a policy that will — if history repeats — be sprung onto the public a week before the election, and be spruiked with straight face and little sense of irony.

Abbott and Turnbull (or, as the case may be, Turnbull as PM and Paul Fletcher as communications minister) may well choose that path — but by ignoring the rest of the telecommunications industry to push tired NBN arguments on a jaded populace, the Coalition is simply weakening its platform and handing the telecommunications portfolio to Labor on a platter.

Australians might thank them for it, but Turnbull will be kicking himself if he wastes the opportunity to revisit the rest of his portfolio, and reframe the discussion in terms where he can actually gain solid ideological ground.

What do you think? Is Turnbull missing political opportunities by ignoring the rest of his portfolio? Or he is actually looking after it just fine, thank you? And, is there still any way his NBN arguments will win ground?

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