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NBN green-lit, but Labor on notice

Labor may argue that its victory today is a mandate for its NBN plan, but the photo-finish result means the NBN will proceed under a very different kind of scrutiny and with much higher expectations than before. If Labor can't improve its process and its game, the real test on the NBN may yet lie down the track.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It was clear from the moment Tony Windsor said the word "broadband", early in his speech, that both he and Rob Oakeshott were going to make the leap of faith and support Julia Gillard's government — and, importantly, its National Broadband Network strategy. Yet, as the hard work to shape the country's telecommunications future begins in earnest, it will be under the microscope.

After all, the nearly tied popular vote cannot really be read as a vote for or against the NBN and, as Bob Katter's list of his electorate's top-twenty priorities showed us, there are many Australians for whom the NBN didn't even rate a blip. Many more want an NBN, but would have sided with the Coalition's more fiscally conservative approach. For this massive group of people, the NBN roll-out will be background noise — for Labor to treat this result as a mandate and run with it, to the exclusion of other policies, would be a mistake.

Broadband may eventually have been the clincher for Oakshott and Windsor — and even Katter said he preferred Labor's plan — but as Windsor made clear, its roll-out will proceed within the context of a much more serious, defined commitment to narrowing the many gaps between city and rural people. They may have grudgingly green-lighted the NBN, but if by the next election Labor can't show real evidence that it's on the way to delivering the kind of life-changing healthcare, economic, education and social-equity services it has promised the NBN will deliver, it's going to struggle to make its case again.

In many ways, this was the best of outcomes — at least as far as telecommunications goes. We will, after all, get forward-looking infrastructure that, while expensive, will last Australia well into the future.

We will not have to suffer Labor's ridiculous and unnecessary internet filter, although I doubt that even this historic election will drive Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to do the right thing and resurrect the Coalition's more-reasonable NetAlert program.

And, most importantly, we will not have to sit by and watch as Tony Abbott's conservative market policy unleashes Telstra once again and forces the industry into a state of hibernation.

Yet with this decision comes great responsibility, and Labor needs to remember that. It may have survived this scare with a clear right to proceed with its plans, but it was a very, very close call. Simply railroading through legislation will become more difficult, given the potential for any of the independents to put up their hand and say "wait a second". Burying reports, delaying the release of documents and censoring what should be public information isn't going to go over well at all with the populace.

In short, Julia Gillard, Stephen Conroy and their peers need to thank their lucky stars and recommit themselves to an unprecedented openness of process, as well as a frank exchange with industry and technological leaders that could well give them the moral upper hand they would so desperately like to assert.

Having hung by her fingertips for a fortnight, Gillard may have come out of her assassination of Rudd with the upper hand, but now she must appease both her critics and her reluctant supporters. Unless the NBN and alterations to telcomunications legislation are run by the book and achieve the real-world change they promise to deliver, the next election could bear a worrying resemblance to the one the country has just suffered. And that, I think we can all agree, is something nobody needs.

What's your take? Did Gillard steal the NBN mandate from a divided public? Has justice been done given the Coalition's lacklustre plan? Was this really the "broadband election"? And what will you be watching out for as the NBN's gears start spinning once again?

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