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NBN FUD: will Abbott ever learn?

Tony Abbott's budget reply speech has been lambasted for its lack of detail, and when it came to the NBN, Abbott still managed to slip in a prodigious number of mistakes.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

I am, of course, not privy to the private conversations between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, but I would assume that at some point, over the past two and a bit years, Abbott would have sat Turnbull down and said something like, "Please, Mal, tell me what we're doing wrong with this National Broadband Network (NBN) thing, and why it cost us the election. Give me the facts, so I can correctly explain to the Australian people why it is a bad, bad idea".

And Turnbull would, in his capacity as Tony "I'm-no-Bill-Gates" Abbott's right-hand man on all things technology and communications related, sit his boss down and explain in careful, short words, what the NBN is actually all about.


Are Abbott's Liberals ignoring NBN facts — or trying to rewrite them? (Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

Turnbull would explain, how, you know: the industry is pushing for structural separation; why a fibre-to-the-node (FttN) policy will put — and keep — Abbott on his knees, before an historically recalcitrant Telstra; and the reality that NBN pricing has shown absolutely no threat of exploding in the real world, in the way it apparently explodes, over and over again, inside Abbott's head.

Clear and concise conversations like that have a way of helping people reset their bearings, brush off the cobwebs of old and outdated positions, filter out festering inaccuracies, and generally improve the perceived legitimacy of their arguments (don't forget late last year, when Turnbull apparently met with NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley, for a tête-à-tête discussion, and now, has spent this year in more practically minded public discourse).

Such absent conversations and tired fallacies have a way of sounding even more tired and inaccurate than ever. And it was for this reason, I suspect, that after reading Abbott's budget response last week, much of Australia's entire technology journalism community either moaned and popped a pair of Panadeine, or simply took the rest of the day off and went outside to engage in something more rewarding — for example, repeatedly hitting their heads with a large brick.

Abbott has shown prodigious skill in cramming masses of hysterical, prejudicial, dogmatic and entirely inaccurate FUD, into one or two sentences.

Whatever his other talents, when it comes to the NBN, Abbott has shown prodigious skill in cramming masses of hysterical, prejudicial, dogmatic and entirely inaccurate fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) into one or two sentences. His budget reply speech (watch it or read it) proved that despite millions of published words and thousands of carefully reasoned arguments, over several years, Abbott — and, by association, the entire Liberal Party — is still not above ignoring the facts in an attempt to make a good political point.

There were all the old nuggets, wrapped into just a couple of sentences: "Why spend $50 billion on a National Broadband Network, so customers can subsequently spend almost three times their current monthly fee, for speeds they might not need? Why dig up every street, when fibre to the node could, more swiftly and more affordably, deliver 21st-century broadband?"

Pick your FUD: the $50 billion price tag, to which Abbott clings to; the blatantly incorrect statement about the cost of NBN plans; his assumptions about whether or not people need NBN speeds; or the elephant in the room — Abbott's insinuation that Labor's NBN will involve digging up "every street".


Surely, at some point, Turnbull must have pointed out to Abbott that the reason the NBN has been delayed, in the first place, was that it was waiting to conclude its negotiations with Telstra, precisely so it would not have to dig up every street.

Surely, someone would have mentioned to Abbott that so far, the prices for NBN services are actually quite comparable with those of current ADSL and cable services.

Surely, someone would have told him that there are, actually, quite a lot of people who would welcome the speeds of the NBN, or even its lowest speed of 12Mbps, if they could only be guaranteed to get what they're paying for.

And surely, someone would have sat down for a heart-to-heart with Abbott about why the Telstra privatisation failed to deliver the kind of market that everybody in the industry has hoped for, over last 15 years.

None of this is new, and it's not the first time I have pointed it out (see my thoughts in July 2010). But you'd think that if the Coalition were interested in fighting fire with fire, Turnbull would surely have set Abbott straight on these, and other, issues, so he could impress upon the media and the public the effectiveness of his intelligent, well-informed arguments against Labor's NBN.

We must also consider the possibility that Turnbull is saying nothing because he enjoys watching Abbott twisting in the wind; and who could blame him?

Seriously, though, I think we've all accepted that Abbott's not technically minded. But, surely, Abbott must have realised by now that the NBN is an important-enough election issue that he should be ready to engage in fact-filled debates, come next year. And surely, as a Rhodes scholar and would-be prime minister, he could take the time to do enough footwork to get some genuine facts about the roll-out, before throwing FUD around, left, right and centre, like an inebriated chef de partie throwing fettuccine against the wall to see if it's ready.

If Abbott cannot get his facts straight ... what does this say about his potential performance as PM?

No matter how much you marginalise the NBN as an issue of national importance — and there certainly are other critical issues facing our country — his ongoing refusal to bow to the weight of actual facts is a worrying sign of a broader political style that favours flash over sizzle, style over substance and political FUD over fact. If Abbott cannot, or will not, get his facts straight on the NBN, despite a wealth of information that would allow him to do so, what does this say about his potential performance as PM?

However, Abbott is not the only one trying to write his own version of the NBN truth. Paul Fletcher, Turnbull's heir apparent, appears to have been practicing his Jonathan Holmes swagger in front of the mirror, and started trying to school the media on how to properly cover the NBN.

Note to self: it is apparently not possible to write fairly about the NBN, without arguing that it is a steaming, stinking policy, and lacing one's coverage with judicious use of terms like "pink batts" and "white elephant". Fletcher's stream of invective against the straightforward, if non-acerbic, NBN report in The Sydney Morning Herald(not available online) and his bizarre decision to complain to the Australian Press Council (APC) about it, smacks of tit for tat, just months after the APC slapped rival paper The Daily Telegraph on the wrist for its inaccurate NBN coverage.

Most of the reasons for that finding relate to misleading statements about the NBN's price. Does this mean someone should, therefore, censure Abbott for his misleading statements in parliament? Or maybe they should just refer him to the government's new online portal for NBN education. Turnbull's press release, in response to the Budget, attacked the portal's $20 million cost as a tool for "more pro-NBN propaganda" — and yet, ironically, Turnbull's ongoing ignorance of NBN facts suggests that he might rightfully be one of its biggest users.

They say that it's not fair to have a battle of wits with an unarmed man, but when that man is jockeying for the most important political position in the country, it's hard to avoid. Over and over again, Tony Abbott has done with his NBN facts what Dan Quayle did with the English language. Given the near-universal condemnation of his budget reply, one would hope that Abbott will take a few minutes to sit down with Turnbull, and get some actual facts about the NBN. It would make the debate so much more interesting — and maybe, just maybe, force him to fight the election on issues where the truth really is as outrageous as he wants to believe.

What do you think? Do the facts particularly matter in this debate? Is there a reason Turnbull might not be schooling Abbott on the NBN? Or do you think Abbott, in fact, does have his facts straight?

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