Time is on Turnbull's side

As unemployment figures reveal a growing army of 'house-bound unemployed', Malcolm Turnbull has an opportunity to outmanoeuvre Labor on the NBN rollout. But voters are increasingly suggesting his goal should be even bigger.

One of the key battles of the 2010 federal election – broadband policy – will be fought on quite different terrain at the next poll.

In the heady lead-up to the August 2010 election, Senator Stephen Conroy wowed Australia with the vision he first put together with Kevin Rudd, and refined on the campaign trail with Julia Gillard. Yes it was expensive, but it would allow us to lead the world in something other than renovating houses, digging up red dirt and, of course, swimming.

At the same time, the Coalition completely fluffed their pitch to roll out a very cheap, 12 Mbps network that nobody thought would do the job.

So with no competition (no pun intended) NBN was massively popular – around 60 per cent of voters thought it a fine idea.

That figure has come down, but the policy is still popular overall. In its most recent survey of voters on the issue, in September, Essential Media found that 43 per cent of voters thought it was a good idea, while 28 per cent didn't, leaving 29 per cent to be convinced either way.

To put that in context, virtually the same numbers applied to Labor's decision to abolish the WorkChoices legislation – 42 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. Broadly speaking, both policy choices are assets for Labor going into the next poll.

So what will be different next time around? Despite all the flak Labor receives on specific issues, it's overall narrative is fairly coherent – and NBN slots into that bigger picture along with carbon pricing, education reforms and its attempt (not a very convincing one) to milk the mining industry to pay for it all.

Australia, says Labor, will be a smarter, cleaner, more connected economy within the 'Asian century'. Labor argues that if we're to innovate and educate our way to the top of the Asia region, and be known as producers of high value added goods and services (financial services, education exports, high-end manufacturing, clean-tech, and so on), we need a world-class broadband network.

That's a pretty optimistic vision, but there seems to be a less optimistic reason to get fast internet to Australian households as soon as possible – an increasing number of those households contain under-employed people whose skills could be put to more use if they had decent broadband.

For more than a decade Roy Morgan has looked at unemployment using a methodology quite different from that used by the ABS. It counts people who want to work, but who haven't actually applied for anything in the past four weeks.

That gives it a higher unemployment reading generally, but the alarming numbers in recent months show a sudden divergence between the ABS headline rate of 5.4 per cent, and the Roy Morgan figure which has veered up to 9.7 per cent (see chart below).

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This growing army of house-bound unemployed has not escaped the federal government's attention. It has dubbed next week 'Telework Week' and is using it to kick off a campaign to double the number of home-based teleworkers by 2020 – all part of its broader National Digital Economy Strategy.

That all makes sense, but the missing ingredient is time.

At last week's six-monthly update on NBN Co's progress in rolling out the government's fibre-to-the-premises network, Mike Quigley gave a fairly good account of why he's on track to deliver connections in accordance with NBN Co's corporate plan – 286,000 premises will be "passed" by mid-2013, as planned, despite some serious time lags in getting contracts in place to serve multi-unit-dwelling sites.

But hitting the plan's deadlines will only be of significant use to teleworkers if the plan itself is the best way to get broadband into their homes as quickly as possible. And this plan is not – Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor made it a condition of forming government that much of the early build (and a very expensive part of that build) will be in the bush.

There's no doubt that many regional centres have woeful internet blackspots, but from a national productivity perspective, getting broadband out across the cities would seem much more efficient.

And this is where shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has an opportunity. Telling Australians that they need a Holden instead of a Ferrari is never going to be popular. However, telling them they can have a Holden in their driveway tomorrow rather than a Ferrari in five years' time, is a much better pitch. (And who knows, perhaps in five years' time you'll be able to afford to trade it on a Ferrari!)

We will not see the final shape of the Coalition's broadband plan until closer to the election, though we do know that it relies heavily on fibre-to-the-node technology, which Turnbull promotes as costing between one-third and one-quarter the price of FTTP.

But more importantly, it can be installed very quickly, without body corporates having to decide to allow Mike Quigley's engineers to run fibre around blocks of flats or units.

Around a third to the premises to be connected by NBN fall under the 'multi-dwelling' rubric, so that's a lot of potential teleworkers that may be kept waiting years for their productivity upgrade.

The eyes of Australian voters glaze over when cap-ex, op-ex and various discount rates and rates of return are the selling points for the Coalition's broadband vision. Likewise all that technical stuff about upload and download speeds.

However, voters can much more easily grasp the amount of time they'll have to wait. That must surely, therefore, be the main thrust of Turnbull's pitch at the next election. It is the one clear area where he can outmanoeuvre Conroy – time really is on Turnbull's side.

Before signing off, however, it must be noted that so are the voters.

A Galaxy poll out yesterday showed 60 per cent of voters think Turnbull should give up the communications portfolio altogether and reapply for his previous job – opposition leader. Only 29 per cent of voters thought Tony Abbott should have that job.

Abbott, when asked why Turnbull was so popular, put it down to Turnbull's performance in the communication's portfolio.

What a pleasant fantasy.

The Galaxy numbers are yet further backing for the notion that it won't be Malcolm Turnbull taking the Coalition's broadband plan to the next election – he might be far too busy elsewhere. And it's unlikely to be teleworking from home.

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