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Business

Why the NBN is better than sex

We're spending over $1 billion per year just to convince hundreds of thousands of Australians to have unprotected sex — then spending several times as much to deal with the consequences. Tony Abbott considers this perfectly acceptable but won't allocate enough to give Australia a proper NBN. As they say in the classics, perhaps someone should ask him to Please Explain.
Written by David Braue, Contributor on

It's hardly news that Senator Steve Fielding has funny ideas about things: as parliament's best-known fence-sitter, he has been the scourge of many a pollie pushing otherwise good policy, and many suspect him of prostituting his voting power in return for pet projects such as the now-apparently-dead filter that even seems to turn Stephen Conroy's stomach.

An avowed Creationist who believes wind farms are causing health problems and that recreational whale fishing is every Australian's right, it's astonishing that Fielding was also pipped by Stephen Conroy in Zoo Weekly magazine's recent poll about Australia's dumbest politician. But with Family First's demand that the government set up a free online university to justify the NBN, he's demonstrating the same financial ignorance and spending hypocrisy that is leading Tony Abbott's Liberals to threaten the NBN's future.

Fielding wants to leverage his vote to get something that would supposedly provide better skills to a group of people, then can claim the moral high ground before lending his reluctant support to the NBN in a typical, tired and totally predictable charade. However, his suggestion would position the government as a competitor to a massive Australian industry, offering for free what universities can already barely seem to afford when students and the government are paying for it.

More problematic, however, is Fielding's strange belief that a free university would somehow boost the business case for the NBN; he is, after all, quoted here and elsewhere as saying that he "would be reluctant to support the NBN 'without a proper business case'".

Fielding's ... belief that a free university would somehow boost the business case for the NBN [doesn't reconcile with his claims that] he "would be reluctant to support the NBN 'without a proper business case' ... Fielding is simply another pork-barrelling, fast-talking, socialist hanger-on who is polluting the NBN business case with his own baseless rhetoric. "

Would a free university somehow improve this business case? Surely even Fielding can appreciate that spending millions to set up yet another bureaucracy, then give its services away for free, would hardly constitute a return on the NBN investment. And maybe Fielding perhaps doesn't realise you can already get degrees online; I've saved him the trouble and made one (PDF) for him to print out and hang on his wall next to the certificate Zoo Weekly must surely have sent him for his silver finish.

The real issue

The obvious conclusion is that Fielding is simply another pork-barrelling, fast-talking, socialist hanger-on who is polluting the NBN business case with his own baseless rhetoric. It's just another example of Canberra's problematic my-project-is-more-important-than-yours-because-I-say-so dogma. When married with a shocking lack of financial common sense, this often leads to massive amounts of funding for things that would seem to have very little return on investment (ROI).

Just look at the NBN's critics, who are still using the same tired old arguments to fight against a network that is well on its way to becoming reality; desperately needed by lots of people and businesses that have worse broadband access than you; and essential if Australia can hope to build a real economy that doesn't revolve around digging rocks out of the ground.

Speaking of digging, everybody knows it's going to be expensive to dig the country's telecoms industry out of the hole the Howard Government dug for it. The only real questions that need to be asked regarding the NBN are: what is the price of inaction? Australia now being roundly recognised as a broadband laggard with the world's 40th fastest average connection speeds. If we don't fix this, exactly what will it cost us? Will that opportunity cost exceed the approximately $5 billion per year it will cost us to build the NBN in the worst-case scenario? And, more broadly: are inertia, manipulation and baseless attacks on forward thinkers really the way to modernise our country?

It's instructive to go back to 2002, when the Howard Government made a significant commitment to building Australia by introducing the controversial Baby Bonus. Critics said it was ridiculous to pay thousands of dollars just so people could buy new plasma TVs, but the stimulus worked: Australia's flagging fertility trends reversed and 2008 saw the number of births grow 4 per cent over the previous year to reach a record of 296,600 in that year alone.

If Tony Abbott is serious about focusing government resources on investments that deliver clear ROI, he should immediately suspend the Baby Bonus, table a clear financial analysis of both it and the proposed paid parental leave scheme, and compare these against the real case for the NBN...

At a cost of over $5000 per child, the Baby Bonus basically means that we are now paying around $1.5 billion per year for the sole purpose of convincing couples to have unprotected sex.

Now, Tony Abbott is promising to spend $8 billion in the first two years, and billions more every year following, to pay parents to stay at home for up to six months to look after those children. That's around $13,500 per child, per year, at current birth levels.

Considering these figures, it's hard to swallow Abbott's claim that he is axing the NBN because he's a fiscal conservative; like Fielding and seemingly every other politician, he is clearly ready to spend money like the proverbial sailor in a brothel, when it suits his own personal cause.

There is no hard, fast business case for the Baby Bonus, nor for the paid parental leave scheme that may make parents happier but will not — unlike the $5-billion-a-year NBN — contribute one iota to increasing the country's GDP. Employees taking up parental-leave benefits will be contributing absolutely nothing to the economy for six months, apart perhaps from increasing their spend on nappies, Wiggles DVDs and Chardonnay. But Abbott isn't railing against the Baby Bonus because Australia's social-welfare culture wouldn't allow it; instead, he has attacked the NBN as some sort of exclusive plaything of the technological elite, counting on bread-and-butter voters to accept his wisdom, then clamber back into their caves and get back to procreating.

The ROI of sex

The fact is, governments invest this kind of money all the time in programs that lack clear business benefits but will do good; being able to do this is one of the benefits of being a government.

In the Baby Bonus' case, that return is nearly 300,000 future Australians, students, business leaders, labourers — and taxpayers.

The government is investing $2000 per Australian to ensure that every one of us has the ability to access world-class broadband for at least the next 50 years. Compare this with over $5000 in government support per newborn Australian and $13,500 to pay a parent to look after them based on nothing more on the vague idea that babies are 'A Good Thing', and the NBN looks more and more like a bargain.

Yes, taxpayers. It's hardly revolutionary to suggest that a growing country simply must expand its resource base if it is to keep its economy growing. We can't put a price tag on population growth, but we know inherently that it's a good thing so we support policies to encourage it.

Within eight years, the Baby Bonus and paid parental leave schemes will probably have cost Australia more than the NBN over the same time. If Tony Abbott is serious about focusing government resources on investments that deliver clear ROI, he should immediately suspend the Baby Bonus, table a clear financial analysis of both it and the proposed paid parental leave scheme, and compare these against the real case for the NBN.

I suspect the NBN would come up well. After all, the government is investing what works out to around $2000 per Australian to ensure that every one of us has the ability to access world-class broadband for at least the next 50 years. Compare this with over $5000 in government support per newborn Australian and $13,500 to pay a parent to look after them based on nothing more on the vague idea that babies are A Good Thing, and the NBN looks more and more like a bargain.

I'm not advocating the cessation of the Baby Bonus or the parental leave scheme. What I'm saying is that voters should take Tony Abbott's black-or-white views on the NBN with a grain of salt. Unlike many of the social-welfare programs he's proposing, spending money in the NBN is an investment not in lifestyle but in something real, tangible, expandable and relevant. It will help ensure that you, your children and their children can live and work in a society fully capable of taking advantage of the benefits of communications. Given Australia's chronic internal and external isolation, the NBN — a real one built on fibre, not a Playskool version cobbled together using wireless — is simply essential to our continued functioning as a country. Once you accept that, the case to disband the NBN simply evaporates.

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