Can Albanese save Labor's NBN?

The new communications minister is going to be a busy man until the federal election is called and he might need to shake things up at NBN Co if he hopes to revive the fortunes of Labor’s NBN.

Deputy PM Anthony Albanese is going to be a busy man until the federal election is called, as he takes over from Stephen Conroy as the Communications minister. And the current infrastructure minister will need to do more than just sell the message if he hopes to revive the fortunes of Labor’s fibre to the premises (FttP) NBN.

Albanese’s appointment as Conroy’s successor makes a lot of sense, and the Federal member for Grayndler’s experience as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport could actually prove to be a blessing. He may not have the technical knowledge possessed by Conroy but that might not prove to be as big a detriment as some might imagine.  

The new communications minister will need to be at his pugnacious best to duke it out with an ever erudite shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull – the man who purportedly invented the internet in Australia.

The NBN narrative under Rudd and Albanese is going to be modified. As Rudd pointed out this morning, Albanese’s task is to “keep the nation’s arteries going” and that includes new infrastructure, the NBN.

Shifting the debate away from pure technology and bringing the focus to the economic and business benefits at risk under the Coalition’s NBN approach is sound strategy, and one that gives Albanese the footing he needs to take the fight back to the Coalition.  

Tony Abbott’s attempt at levity, with regards to Turnbull’s place in internet history, may have left many fuming but there was a another juicy titbit in his speech last week that perhaps didn’t get the scrutiny it deserves.

Abbott extolled his passion for infrastructure to the party faithful last week.

“Ladies and gentlemen, a strong and successful country is marked by the infrastructure of the 21st Century. I want to see cranes over our cities, I want to see bulldozers on the ground, and that's exactly what will happen under the Coalition.”

“I hope that in a few years' time people can say of Tony Abbott, "he was an infrastructure Prime Minister."

A worthy ambition from an aspiring leader of the nation but what’s missing is any conviction on recognising the NBN as a crucial piece of infrastructure – infrastructure that becomes even more important to our economy given that the resources party is on the nose.

Malcolm Turnbull may not have invented the internet in Australia but he did manage to successfully drag Abbott kicking and screaming into the internet age and finally recognise that the NBN matters. However, most of the Coalition’s energies have been spent on attacking the Labor NBN and its profligacy rather than convincing the public that their cheaper NBN will deliver the same potential as a full fibre NBN.

Albanese’s best chance before the election is to target this deficiency in the Coalition’s broadband message. However, there’s another tactic which could also prove fruitful.

For all of his passion for the NBN, Stephen Conroy’s last months as communications minister were a lacklustre affair. As NBN Co’s construction woes continued to grab the headlines – from missed targets to asbestos on the streets - the Coalition had more than enough opportunity to highlight the failings of Labor’s NBN vision.

These failings have more to do with the relative health of the NBN Co and poor execution than technology. Albanese now has the power to fix the rot at NBN Co which might not lead to more connections but will certainly wrest the initiative away from Turnbull.

Saving the FttP NBN will require a significant shake up at NBN Co and that could potentially mean some significant departures in the week to come.  The new communications minister needs to show the Australian public that a Rudd government is committed to steadying the rollout and the first step in that process will require admitting that mistakes have been made.

We will have to wait and see if such contrition will be forthcoming but it could well be the difference between a landslide Coalition victory and a closely contested tussle at the ballot box. 

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