Oakeshott's NBN lament

The NBN and politics have been intertwined since the inception of the project and Rob Oakeshott's latest comments only highlight how much harm the politicking has done.

It’s now been a week since NBN Co boss Mike Quigley inadvertently managed to do his cause more harm than good, in what can best be described as a feckless display of political naiveté. Quigley’s best intentions of fostering an informed debate on the best broadband solution for Australia have been drowned out in the ensuing maelstrom of criticism. The NBN Co boss may have been striving for an apolitical discussion but he should have known better.

The NBN has been accompanied by a fractious, unedifying political process (courtesy of both parties) since its inception, a fact that should not have been lost on Quigley. In fact, the latest comments by Rob Oakeshott, the Independent MP running the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network, would testify to just how trying the politicking has become. Here's what Oakeshott had to say in the foreword of the latest report from the committee.

I am not confident that the focus of the committee is an oversight of an existing build under the existing Shareholder Ministers arrangements. Instead, I think the committee has become somewhat stuck on a policy dispute between different build options, and will only deepen divisions on this in the pre-election period.

If we can manage to produce a 5th report, there is a danger it won’t mean much from an oversight perspective. Despite the opportunities to report and provide oversight on a number of important aspects of the current roll-out, there is every chance the next report will be nothing more than a compendium of political statements and election promises. If this is all we can produce, I could write it now, and it makes the entire committee process worthless and a waste of time for all involved.

I therefore hope I am wrong, and in a way challenge the committee members to revel in proving me wrong, in a hope that the work of an important committee of 16 MP’s and Senators, with 68 participating MP’s and Senators, does actually have some worth in advancing policy for Australia over the coming six month period.

Somewhat naively, I live in hope!

Oakeshott’s lament encapsulates how cheap opportunism disguised as ideological difference has managed to scuttle the most ambitious technological endeavour in Australia’s history. A committee ostensibly built to ensure that the NBN is rolled out in time has spent more time taking political cheap shots at each other than work constructively.

We saw an example of this last week, when rather than take Quigley’s backing for a study at face value, the Coalition’s immediate reaction was to call it a “cheap stunt” with shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull labelling it a “bizarre twist”.

But as telco analyst Paul Budde muses in his blog, couldn’t Turnbull have taken up Quigley’s offer? After all, here was an opportunity for the Coalition to put its “cheaper, faster to the market” NBN to test. Presumably the Coalition will put its promises to test at a more politically expedient time, post-election, when it can hopefully call the shots. That’s politics, folks.

None of this of course absolves Quigley, who has made a grievous error in judgement, and one can only imagine what the subsequent conversation between Quigley and Stephen Conroy would have been like. Not very pretty, I imagine.

Even the most ardent supporter of the Labor NBN will have to admit that the mere mention of a study on the efficacy of broadband technologies opened the door for Turnbull to hammer in his call for a cost benefit analysis (CBA). And the problem was further compounded by the fact that Quigley’s comments have allowed the detractors of the Labor NBN to start parroting about a backflip.

His assertion last week that he was open to a Communication Alliance backed study could have been seen as a call to arms to the telco industry to strive for an equitable solution. However, the subsequent reticence on display from the telcos, most notably Optus, has now doomed him .

As thing stand, there has been nothing from NBN Co and Conroy’s office on the matter, perhaps a sign of increasing tension between the two  parties. 

Oakeshott said yesterday that the latest report, four of six reports to be handed in, had "proved to be the most difficult of all." More importantly, he raised doubt as to whether a fifth one will be of any value. 

According to Oakeshottt, the next report will be " nothing more than a compendium of political statements and election promises.” 

“If this is all we can produce, I could write it now, and it makes the entire committee process worthless and a waste of time for all involved.”

And he is right, as the demise of the Gillard government edges closer the fifth report will be nothing more than a platform for the Coalition to hit Labor over the head for its waste and Labor to warn about Coalition's commitment to destroying any chance of Australia having affordable fibre to the premises network.

Both may be justified in their view, but neither Quigley nor Oakeshott will be around to see how things pan out. A Coalition government will sack Quigley and his survival looks doubtful even if the Gillard government somehow manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

As for Oakeshott, he is almost certain to lose his seat post election. 

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