In the lively debate around the National Broadband Network in senate estimates this week Communications Minister Stephen Conroy belittled his opposition counterpart Malcolm Turnbull's tech credentials for taking advice from Liberal MP Paul Fletcher. But what's so wrong with that?
(Shadows image by Atilla Kefeli, CC BY-ND 2.0)
In Tuesday night's epic four-hour marathon estimates session, where Conroy and NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley were grilled by coalition and Greens senators on the roll-out of the National Broadband network (NBN), the minister mocked the Liberal Senators by announcing that Turnbull had brought fellow Liberal MP and former Optus director of corporate affairs Paul Fletcher along to a recent meeting with Quigley at the NBN Co offices.
"The fact is ... your shadow communications spokesperson needed to take Paul Fletcher along with him to a briefing with Mr Quigley so he could explain to Mr Turnbull what Mr Quigley was talking about later," Conroy said. "It is the first time I have ever seen a shadow minister need a shadow shadow minister. So a shadow shadow minister came to the briefing with Mr Quigley."
"But just to be very clear to you: the fact that your shadow communications minister does not understand how you receive a fixed-line phone on a piece of fibre is a little disappointing," he added. "I thought Mr Turnbull was a tech head."
It's easy for Conroy to say that, of course, he's been the minister responsible for broadband for over three years. He has had advisors and experts within the department and NBN Co at his disposal to explain these technical specifics to him for quite some time. Unfortunately for Turnbull, when a political party is in opposition, its resources are much more limited than those of the government. If anything, it would be negligent for Turnbull not to draw on Fletcher's vast experience both working for Optus and his history working for previous communications minister Richard Alston.
Turnbull having a "shadow shadow" communications minister in Fletcher to advise him on the technology behind the NBN will only lead to a much more well-informed debate between Turnbull and Conroy in the media and it has the potential to shift the focus to the technical details from the seemingly never-ending discussion about whether or not there is a cost-benefit analysis for the $43 billion network.
That can only be a good thing.
In any case, it's clear that the government is using Fletcher to attack Turnbull, stating that it believes Fletcher advocated the government's telecommunications industry policy in his book Wired Brown Land?: as recently as yesterday Gillard quoted a passage from the book in Question Time.
"On the merits of this legislation, the House does not have to take reassurances from me. It can actually turn to the words of the member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher, who wrote a book called Wired Brown Land? Telstra's Battle for Broadband. He, of course, is now acting as the shadow shadow communications minister, as I understand it."
Gillard went on to quote Fletcher stating that the wholesale owner of the network must not compete in the retail space, which is what the reform legislation aims to accomplish.
If the government is singing the praises of Fletcher's advice, isn't that the perfect reason why Turnbull should be listening to him?