Turnbull walks away from NBN high ground claims

In one swift move on the fifth birthday of the NBN, Malcolm Turnbull has fallen into the same practice that he accused Labor of for years.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

While the search to find the envelope upon which Stephen Conroy and Kevin Rudd decided the fate of the Australia telecommunications sector in 2009 continues, there is now a secondary objective for the search party to find, the napkin upon which Malcolm Turnbull and Mathias Cormann decided to undo years of Liberal party mantra and hard-won political capital.

From the day that Turnbull entered the shadow communications portfolio, he mercilessly took to Labor for its lack of forethought and planning on the Rudd government's decision to decided to forgo the FttN network that it had sought tenders for, and move over to a majority FttP network.

The shadow minister said it was too costly, too unplanned, and would be riddled with blowouts and delays — and given what we know of asbestos scares and the lack of a proper ramp up in the NBN rollout, the calls were not without warrant.

Despite Turnbull's relentless attacks, Labor could hold onto one thing that Turnbull and the Liberals in opposition could never match, pure ambition.

The allure of a modern FttP network with untapped future capacity was a gold-plated dream that Turnbull would spend years trying to pull down. And if you could put the idealist technical arguments to one side, shadow minister Turnbull had an argument not without merit. As the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by Australia, a cost-benefit analysis should have been a walk up start, but as we are finding out in the recent Pink Batts Royal Commission, extensive and informed planning was not Labor's strong point in government.

In areas where Conroy and Labor were stubbornly dogmatic — refusing to do fibre to the basement despite knowledge that it was practical; leaving certain rural towns off the fibre rollout due to the cost of FttP, yet their internet speeds would be helped by FttN; deploying the network in a hodge-podge manner that led to questions on whether rollout priority was determined by the local federal members' value to the government of the time rather than actual need for improved connectivity — the Liberal opposition offered alternatives that made sense, provided the FttP vs FttN debate was put to one side.

And so it was that in September last year, the "adults" were elected to be back in charge in this country, and the promises of the Liberal party could be enacted. Six reviews were set up into the NBN, and although governments never sanction inquiry unless they know the answer, at a minimum, the public could at least be better informed of the calculations behind the NBN's past decisions and future direction.

One can only imagine how Turnbull and Cormann thought they would bring the electorate with them: Together they would descend from the Mount Sinai of Fiscal Responsibility, read the new laws of state-based infrastructure ownership off of two tablets, and the people would stop worshipping Labor's golden FttP calf of connectivity before being led them to the promised land of "Faster, Sooner, Cheaper".

Instead, given the announcement that the NBN would switch to the Liberal's preferred mixed-technology model before most of the reviews of NBN Co are complete, Turnbull and Cormann have descended the mountain, seen the golden calf, and decided to spray the crowd directly in the face with the Sir Tim Wilson "freedom of speech" water cannon.

All the time spent by Turnbull pointing out that Labor was using the NBN as a political weapon, and not treating the NBN as a Crown corporation, have been undone on one swift movement, and he has managed to tar himself with his own brush.

Fortunately for the current government, the calibre of the now opposition speakers means it is unlikely that this prime example of going against years of rhetoric, and what the electorate were led to believe were core conservative tenets, is unlikely to be exposed for the extreme about-face that it is.

Labor's pair of communications spokespeople, Jason Clare and Michelle Rowland, have failed to make headway on an ever-confident communications minister that expresses delight in using the world "Conrovian" at every opportunity that he can. Indeed, it has been left the now-shadow defence minister, and former communications minister and NBN father, Stephen Conroy, to ask the tough questions of NBN Co. Unfortunately for Labor and FttP fans alike, just when Conroy was making a point in recent senatorial hearings, he turned himself into the story rather than NBN Co.

One of the positives to take away from the Western Australian Senatorial election debacle, was that at least the upper house retained the one Greens member whose knowledge and interest in technology issues is unsurpassed. If only Scott Ludlam was able to convert his Reddit and YouTube fan base into mainstream popularity, the government could be held to better account.

By abandoning any pretense of fiscal responsibility and proper governance in the Coalition's stewardship of the NBN, Turnbull is now covered in the same muck that he skillfully hurled in Labor's direction for years. All the charges that he accused Mike Quigley, Stephen Conroy, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard of, must now be returned on himself.

Base politics has reduced the NBN to yet another ideological political issue, one that the left is steadfastly for and the right aims is determined to head in its own direction. The 70s saw the creation and removal of Medibank and Medicare; the installation, removal, and re-introduction of a new national anthem; and in the past weeks we've seen the reintroduction of knights and dames into the Australian realm — with this list of political footballs, we can now add the NBN, as both sides are now guilty of bypassing any preparatory financial planning and governing the NBN purely on feelings.

Any promises that NBN Co would be run in a more transparent, business-like fashion can now be laughed off as empty promises that took just over half a year to be broken.

From a "no surprises" government, yesterday's announcement came out of the blue and removes any claim the Coalition had to be better managers and operators of state projects — Turnbull has decided to stunningly reveal that it was he, the new NBN Emperor, who was the one without clothes.

It is now clear that both sides will operate in exactly the same ideological fashion, any decision now comes down the difference in schemes — a Turnboolean FttN network operated on a whim, or a Conrovian FttP network rollout that was decided on a back of an envelope. Given such a decision, it comes down to an essentially technical battle, an area that Turnbull was able to dance around previously.

The battle for the NBN is now mired in six feet of muck, and both the combatants are slinging as much dirt as they can. In this case, Labor's trump card and the golden calf of FttP becomes irresistible.

It's time we all, once again, bow down before the sacred cow.

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