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Election rant reply 7: lust for trust

Labor took what was by far the better broadband policy to the electorate when the election campaign started. But Labor has not sold its policy well.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor on

commentary Labor took what was by far the better broadband policy to the electorate when the election campaign started. Fibre to almost every Australian's home and workplace, mandated and paid for by the government, simply trumps the Coalition's vague investments aimed at letting the telecommunications market work out its own problems. But Labor has not sold its policy well.

As the campaign rolled on, a note of entitlement increasingly crept into the voices of all of Labor's senior leaders with regards to the National Broadband Network. After watching a dozen or more press conferences with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy over the past year over the matter, it has become increasingly apparent that the minister does not understand why anyone would not want the National Broadband Network, or at least not want to pay for it out of the public purse.

This was starkly demonstrated during Conroy's press conference immediately after the Coalition unveiled its broadband policy. Conroy's approach should have been to remain silent and let every other commentator under the sun proceed to demolish the Coalition's ephemeral ideas — as they promptly did.

Instead, he went on a heavy-handed attack which led him into the unsavoury territory of accusing Tony Abbott of knowing nothing about technology. Gillard, too, has been at pains to explain repeatedly in a school teacher's tone that Australia simply must have a NBN, discussing the network as if it was a product to be picked from a shelf in IKEA and self-installed.

In contrast, Abbott has taken a much more light-handed approach that has been more respectful of the extremely diverse views on the matter held by the wider Australian community, which differ from the technology sector's one-sided NBN favour.

Every voter's view is valid, Abbott's campaign has respectfully appeared to suggest, but the Coalition has one view, and that's the view it will implement if it wins government.

The defining point of the campaign for me, and the point at which I became convinced that Abbott will take government tonight, was the moment at which he walked down into the crowd at the Rooty Hill RSL, starkly differentiating himself from Gillard's remote pose perched on a chair on stage.

Abbott's approach suggested leadership. He listened to each audience member's views and then calmly outlined why they were right or wrong, according to the Coalition, but in a way that had even those who strongly disagreed with him eating out of his hand: jokes to take the sting out of arguments, laughter with the crowd. "People Skills", indeed.

Often it doesn't matter what a leader's policies actually are. Sometimes you will trust and follow them, and vote for them, if they take the right approach in talking to you. And that's what we have seen during this election. While Labor has been preaching from the pulpit, the Coalition has been at the pub talking with the people.

The event which perfectly highlighted the sense of entitlement which the Labor camp feels about broadband was NBN Co chief Mike Quigley's startling last-ditch attack on the Coalition's broadband policy this week, which spurred an intense debate about whether the executive had breached the public sector Caretaker Conventions around elections.

Quigley's extraordinary intervention can have been caused by only one thing: a growing sense in the executive's stomach that the Australian electorate was increasingly turning on Labor — an event that would have catastrophic consequences for the fledgling broadband company he had spent so much time building over the past year.

And yet, when faced with such a problem, Quigley took the same approach that has been failing Labor throughout the campaign: he appealed to people's common sense.

Yes Australia will eventually need fibre, and fibre does trump ADSL, wireless and hybrid-fibre coaxial cable broadband. Yes, fibre is necessary infrastructure which will serve Australia for the next 50 years, and it is likely that it will not easily be rolled out without government investment.

But these are technical and economic arguments being introduced into an election which is primarily about trust. An election, which, still, is primarily about whether Australians can feel comfortable about the way in which Julia Gillard backstabbed Australia's favourite son, Kevin Rudd.

Quigley has his own form of leadership. But it is a technical leadership based on rationality. And Labor, and Quigley himself, has attempted to sell the NBN on technical grounds.

In contrast, Abbott's leadership is the emotional leadership, the human leadership. And that is what has allowed him to sell the Coalition's broadband policy to the electorate against all odds.

My suspicion is that tonight the Coalition will do enough to win back government. There is an energy out there in the community that does not seem to sit well with Gillard's cold approach, but that does seem to match Abbott's tireless, dogged pursuit of votes, even to the extent of campaigning 36 hours straight without sleep.

Labor's broadband policy could be better than the Coalition's. But Australia may not choose the best technical option tonight. Australia may choose the leaders it feels more comfortable with instead.

This is the final part of Renai LeMay's devil's advocate replies to David Braue's series of seven election rants, one for each deadly sin, aired each business day until the big day.

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