If the debate surrounding the National Broadband Network (NBN) was a football game then Labor’s supporters are seemingly headed for the exits. Just one year into the second parliamentary term of the four to five terms needed for the NBN rollout and it appears that Labor’s NBN bubble has burst.
Despite the Coalition’s best attempts Labor’s NBN policy remains a positive poll influence with Australians, especially as you move further away from high value inner urban areas. So why is there a deafening silence from Labor on the NBN, that is only broken intermittently by the shadow communications minister Jason Clare posting a media release on his website stating that yet another suburb will get a “second rate NBN.”
Has Labor given up?
Being in opposition is never easy because you don’t have the same access to resources that the sitting government does. There’s a need to focus the limited resources on policies that are strongly supported by voters and likely to gather the most votes at the next election.
But when you have a policy that Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of you might expect the opposition to put some effort into providing a clear statement as to what it intends to do if it wins the next election.
Sadly an internet search for Labor’s current broadband policy will turn up nothing other than the Coalition’s NBN plan and hundreds of links to articles covering the myriad NBN related reviews and audits commissioned by the government, which unsurprisingly find significant fault in every aspect of Labor’s handling of the communications portfolio during the last government.
Clare’s website is so out of date that the upcoming events page lists only one event, the Red Nose Day held on 27 June 2014.
The shadow assistant minister for communications Michelle Rowland is missing in action when it comes to anything broadband due to her primary role as the shadow minister for citizenship and multiculturalism. While it’s understandable that Rowland’s citizenship and multiculturalism role is her core focus, Labor’s failure to recognise the need for Clare to be supported by a junior member of parliament, solely focused on the communications portfolio, is unforgivable.
A search of Labor’s website for anything related to broadband highlights why voters might be confused about Labor’s future plans for the NBN. The last article on the NBN on Labor’s website appears to have been pre-election criticism of a statement that the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull made about the cost of fibre on demand in areas that are to receive fibre to the node.
The only positive for Labor is the ongoing Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network that provides an opportunity for committee chair Senator Kate Lundy and the former communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy to grill key members of the Coalition’s NBN team in often fractious proceedings.
But without the support of the Greens and cross bench senators Labor would lose this one last opportunity to bring any criticism of the Coalition’s NBN to the public’s gaze.
The senate select committee released an interim report on 26 March 2014 that valiantly attempted to dispel the Coalition’s ongoing and concerted criticism of Labor’s NBN. It has proven to be nothing more than a futile gesture, with the report swiftly dismissed by the Coalition as an aberration.
Turnbull's social media chops
A quick comparison with Turnbull’s internet presence highlights the vast gulf between the Coalition and Labor when it comes to the portfolio. Turnbull is an internet and social media winner, except for the odd occasion when he spends too long at the water cooler and then proceeds to make derogatory remarks through social media about those that don’t agree with him.
For Labor to become part of the broadband debate there has got to be a rethink on how it can combat the Coalition’s superior web and social media presence. Providing an update on what Labor intends to do in the communications portfolio if it won the next election would be a good place to start.
The broadband, privacy and security debates have been running for years but there's some concern among proponents for the original NBN plan that Labor’s NBN focus will be far less ambitious if and when it returns to government.
Opposition parties generally tend not to release policies until the next election is called but what could Labor possibly gain by withholding its broadband policy at a time when the Coalition is effectively rewriting history?
Steps to success
For Labor to take the fight to the Coalition it needs to be ambitious and not rest on the ultimately misguided NBN policy implemented by the former government.
For a start, Labor would be seen to be taking control of the debate if it announced that on gaining government it would redress the failures of the past twenty years by both sides of politics and force Telstra to split into retail and wholesale companies.
While there might be some concern initially, the benefits of this outcome would quickly swamp any negatives and Labor would shore up industry and consumer support in the lead up to the next election.
Splitting Telstra would permit Telstra’s wholesale arm to absorb NBN Co and stop the farcical situation where NBN Co will be ‘gifted’ Telstra’s copper and HFC, but be forced to pay for ongoing remediation and maintenance and access to Telstra’s infrastructure including exchange buildings, pits, ducts, traps, etc.
Another sure winner with voters, especially in Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory would be a policy to include backhaul in the universal service obligation.
Telecommunications is an essential service and backhaul has long been a cash-cow for Telstra that disadvantages Australians located outside the inner urban areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Tasmanians can pay up to 40 per cent more for backhaul to Sydney due to the cost of backhaul across the Bass Strait.
And a vote winner with the two million Australians that travel into the outback annually and the ten million that travel on interstate trains and planes would be to get NBN Co to focus on providing satellite, mobile wireless and free Wi-Fi connections (in towns) to planes, trains, boats, caravans, motorhomes and trucks.
But broadband is not one of Labor’s traditional policy focus areas and the prospect of Labor realising that it’s getting caned by the Coalition on the NBN is, for the time being, likely to be lost in the ether.