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Trust us with the NBN; we're politicians

As Rudd and Conroy railroad the NBN into reality, the Liberals are trying to inject some due process into the whole thing by holding Labor accountable for its decisions. However, with the future of Australian telecoms on the line and no real viable alternative, is it just a bit late for accountability?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

There is an alternative dieting theory in which everything of the same colour is deemed to have the same nutritional value: chocolate is as healthy as baked potatoes, for example, and pistachio ice cream is as good to eat as broccoli. To some people, it's blind justification; to others, it's a creed to live and eat by.

By all appearances, the Rudd Government is using a similar philosophy to plan its NBN strategy, and indeed its entire budget for next year. In this frame of mind, $4.7 billion is the same as $43 billion because, well, we're in bad times and need to spend our way out of it. Money is money, after all, Labor seems to be arguing, and it's only spoilsports — and Liberals — who don't get it. Don't actually count calories, don't request an ROI, don't bother justifying the expenditure on anything other than gut instinct and the assumption that everything will be alright down the track. The NBN is inherently good, the argument goes, because it will deliver faster internet to lots more people.

This sort of thinking, of course, is providing an immense volume of fodder for the Opposition, which has wasted no time latching onto the fact that the entire NBN strategy process seems to have been drawn up on the back of Kevin Rudd's in-flight lunch napkin as a way of furthering political goals at great expense and bother to everyone.

Not as healthy as a baked potato, no matter how you look at it.
(Chocolate image by André Karwath, CC 2.5)

Labor's case is hardly helped by revelations such as those emerging recently — that the NBN expert panel didn't even consider the ROI of the $43 billion network investment; that Nick Minchin is threatening a filibuster until Conroy hands over the documents he has already been ordered to hand over; that Labor is railroading Tasmania's NBN kick-off to give the project much-needed momentum even before the government's NBN implementation study is complete; that Conroy disputes the need to even subject the NBN to a cost-benefit analysis at all.

The govt's opaque handling of the entire NBN process is ensuring the infighting is likely to get worse before things get

This kind of head-butting is a way of life in Canberra, and the government's opaque handling of the entire NBN process is ensuring the infighting is likely to get worse before things get better. Yet for all Minchin's dogged determination to clip Labor's our-way-or-the-highway politicking, one common thread seems to run through all of these discussions: we (Australia, that is) need the NBN to just go ahead. In for a penny, they say, in for a pound.

Minchin's aggressive tactics are putting him in the same position as a friend of our optimistic dieter, who might be telling them over and over that fresh strawberries and cherry ripe slices are not the same thing just because they're both red. Everybody knows that, yet people's ability to convince themselves they're doing the right thing knows no bounds.

By putting the "oppose" into "Opposition", Minchin may be getting his voice heard and scoring political points against Labor. He may be demonstrating his competence at questioning Labor's questionable motives and kludgy execution of the NBN. But the biggest problem is that he's just being a partisan bully who's not offering any counter-proposals or any hint of an alternative to the NBN as envisioned.

That's because there simply isn't one.

The thing is, we don't need the NBN just because Labor says so; they're just the sugar daddies for Australian industry, throwing money around like a drunken sailor on a binge that we now know will put us tens of billions in debt. Forget the cost: we need this because years of neglect have left Australia's communications infrastructure so rickety, its stewardship by Telstra so erratic, its nature so fundamentally politicised, that the only way forward is indeed to wipe the slate clean and start building from scratch.

In this context, discussing our copper infrastructure anymore seems like a bit of a joke. Even Telstra seems poised for change

This week's FTTH Council Asia-Pacific conference highlighted just how far the world has come from the old days of copper and monopolistic telecoms. Representatives of FTTH proponents in Singapore, Greece, Japan, Hong Kong, India, the United States, and Indonesia all came to share their stories about how they're casting aside their copper legacies and looking to the future of telecoms.

In this context, discussing our copper infrastructure anymore seems like a bit of a joke. Even Telstra seems poised for change: Sol Trujillo has left, and Don McGauchie is scoping out the best fishing holes in which to while away his retirement. There is no better time for the combative mood that has characterised the past decade or so of telecoms policies to change as the government asserts itself and pushes our telecoms forward at last.

Minchin and his fellow pollies will naturally throw up their arms and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of Rudd and Conroy. And while they should certainly be held accountable for their abuse of the NBN process, Minchin also needs to clarify what he hopes to get out of the effort. Would he really support the cancellation of the NBN project just to score political points? Do the Liberals have a better idea?

In the end, everybody just needs to stop bickering about process and get on with it. We all know the political motivations behind the NBN back-flip, as surely as we know that Tim Tams aren't as healthy as rye bread just because they share the same colour. Let them eat Tim Tams: if Labor could stop hiding behind poorly-conceived justification of its policies and admit its real goals — which are to score political points by getting a real NBN up and running before the next election — and if Minchin could stop pretending he cares about process more than political grandstanding — well, it seems everybody would be a bit better off.

What outcome do you see from all this? Should the NBN be cancelled if it's found that Rudd and Conroy have just gone rogue? Or should we just suck it up and get on with it?

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