Labor's latest NBN defender

With Michelle Rowland reportedly in line to pick up the shadow communications gig, does Labor have the firepower to keep the Coalition honest on the National Broadband Network?

The ALP’s snub of its best broadband brains is simply unfathomable. With Michelle Rowland reportedly in line to pick up the shadow communications mantle there should be some justified fears as to whether Labor has the firepower to keep the Coalition honest on the National Broadband Network (NBN).

That’s not to say that Rowland won’t be committed to the task but the omission of Ed Husic and Senator Kate Lundy from the Shadow Cabinet is a misstep that beggars belief.

It was probably the best question asked of any politician in decades as MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell looked at disgraced former – and very appositely named – Congressman Anthony Weiner last month and asked, “What is wrong with you?”

Right now, following on from the extraordinary decision to cut its best broadband brains – Husic and Lundy – out of the equation, someone should ask exactly the same question of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

Quite how Lundy and Husic can go from being part of the four-strong NBN attack team in the last ALP-led government – along with former Communications Minister Anthony Albanese and Sharon Bird – to now being on the backbench in a much depleted caucus is simply incredible.

Lundy and Husic have both suffered from the ALP’s internal factionalism where both have lost out because of the byzantine deals conducted behind closed doors by rival factional MP’s and backroom operators.

While this approach continues to delight the ALP’s faceless men it could have very serious consequences on its ability to attack Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the critical issue of the National Broadband Network (NBN) in parliament.

The ALP’s version of the NBN – despite its many problems – remains largely popular with voters and is going to be a major issue in the coming parliament as Turnbull re-configures the network from its original Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) design to a largely Fiber-to-the-Node (FTTN) approach.

The next 18 months are going to be a very tricky political time for Turnbull as he not only reviews how the wheels fell off the current NBN plan but also goes about drawing up his own network plans. Then there’s the challenge of actually starting to deliver his vision to the public.

Labor’s window of opportunity

That window is going to give the ALP a priceless opportunity to attack Turnbull on the NBN because for that 18 month period there will be little in the way of tangible progress on the Coalition’s NBN, almost all of the work will be ‘behind the curtain’ as the network is re-designed and tenders for work held.

Because of their proven mastery of the complex issues surrounding the NBN both Husic and Lundy could have given Turnbull something of a torrid time over that difficult period, in which frustrations will inevitably grow over the apparent lack of progress on the network.

Indeed, Husic has already proved over the last couple of months with a series of calm and impressive media performances that he could spar pretty effectively with Turnbull on the NBN – and was probably just as visible in the NBN election debate as Anthony Albanese himself.

However, by excluding its best broadband talent the ALP will now likely have to opt to hand the shadow communications minister role to either newly promoted Michelle Rowland or return Senator Stephen Conroy to the role.

Returning Conroy to the position would be a huge call for the ALP since the Coalition would gleefully pin every bit of bad news on the NBN right onto his forehead – although Conroy would doubtless return serve with equally thunderous force. There are indications that Conroy may have opted to steer clear of the portfolio, which may prove to be the wiser choice.

For her part, Rowland would be an interesting choice for the role, although she has a background as a communications lawyer and served on the Joint-Standing Parliamentary Committee on the NBN she has not so far played a major public role in the NBN debate.

Baptism of fire

The NBN is going to be a major potential sweet spot for the ALP in the political battle over the next three years and opting for an inexperienced shadow minister to take the fight to the Coalition’s best public performer would be a huge risk for the party to take.

Not only will the ALP’s shadow communications minister have to hold the Coalition to account for their execution of their new NBN policy but – perhaps more importantly – they will have to defend the ALP government’s legacy on the NBN too.

Given that Turnbull and the Coalition now have the keys to the filing cabinets at NBN HQ and control over parliamentary committees that is going to be a very difficult task all by itself as the Coalition launches a virulent attack on the ALP’s record and tries to frame the debate.

Whether an inexperienced shadow minister would be able to cope with the inevitably ferocious attack that will come from the Coalition to portray the ALP’s handling of the NBN as another ‘Pink Batts’ disaster remains to be seen – but it will be one hell of a baptism of fire for whomever gets the job.

Tony Brown is a senior analyst with Informa Telecoms & Media. He is a key member of the Broadband and Internet Intelligence Centre team, covering the broadband and Internet markets of the Asia Pacific region.

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