Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has taken a leaf out of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s campaign book in calling for a debate on the National Broadband Network (NBN) with recently appointed communications minister Anthony Albanese.
Albanese has yet to formally agree to a debate – although he has suggested he would be willing to take part - but the question that immediately comes to mind is would a NBN debate between Turnbull and Albanese actually achieve anything worthwhile?
Taking a detached non-partisan view – the politico’s feeling being that a debate at least gives you a chance of bloodying your opponents’ nose or, even better, of them committing a huge faux pas – one has to say that a NBN debate four weeks from the election would have very little value.
No battle of equals
Of course, for his part, Turnbull would no doubt furiously argue that the $37 billion NBN is in dire need of having the spotlight placed firmly on it during the election campaign via a public debate between him and Albanese.
However, Turnbull has been in the communications portfolio for three years now and knows the ins and outs of the global broadband market as well as anyone in politics. This puts him at a firm advantage over Albanese, who has been in his role only a matter of weeks.
It's no surprise then that Turnbull wants to take advantage of a wet behind the ears Albanese who is already juggling multiple roles as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport; and has already conceded he is not a technology expert.
That’s not to say that Albanese has not performed well as a NBN advocate, he has played very firmly within his obvious knowledge limits and kept it nice and simple by attacking the Coalition’s Fibre-to-the-Node dominated policy as Fiber-to-the-Fridge, a ludicrous but extremely funny line.
Given that Labor’s NBN is already far more popular than the Coalition’s - why would Albanese take a risk of damaging that advantage by potentially turning in a shocker at a debate?
After all, he would go into such a debate very much as a ‘substitute fighter’ now that the hardened ALP NBN heavyweight Stephen Conroy is out of the contest. An ill-considered rush of blood on Albanese's part will only end up giving Turnbull – armed with three years of global research – a chance to administer something of a schooling.
All show and little substance
Regardless, even if Turnbull and Albanese did square off in a debate it's highly unlikely that we would get anything substantive out of it, we would almost certainly just hear a repeat of the same tune, the same attack lines we have become so accustomed to.
The ALP have already made it clear that there will be absolutely no adjustment to their current Fibre-to-the-Premise model so we could hardly expect Albanese to even admit any re-consideration of that position in any debate with Turnbull.
From Turnbull’s point of view, he realises that his policy is not greatly loved by the public – many of whom probably think 'Vectored VDSL' is some kind of sexually transmitted disease - and that his best debate option would be to spend an hour relentlessly bagging NBN Co.
Neither of those scenarios makes for a particularly interesting debate and the proceedings would be unlikely to change a single mind on the issue, with ALP folks convinced the NBN is a nation building necessity and the Coalition crowd labelling it an outrageous socialist confection.
From a strategic perspective, it has been something of a surprise that Turnbull hasn't tried utilising some new approaches in his attacks on the NBN, given that the Coalition policy remains behind the ALP version in popularity - although Turnbull claims the NBN is now largely a neutral issue in the Coalition polling.
In particular, Turnbull could have told the story of the ‘Three NBN’s’ that have been deployed in recent years, those being Australia, Singapore and Malaysia – all of which were launched around the same time.
The Malaysian High-Speed Broadband (HSBB) network was completed on time and budget to 1.3 million homes – and now has 550,000 subscribers - and Singapore’s Next Generation National Broadband Network (NGNBN) has been mostly completed to 1.1 million homes and has around 350,000 subscribers.
By contrast, the Australian NBN’s FTTP component has passed little more than 200,000 homes – a substantial portion of which cannot actually connect to the service – and has around 35,000 subscribers.
If Albanese does agree to an NBN debate he will be in a vulnerable position given that he is effectively asking the public to keep faith with a troubled NBN project – albeit one that ultimately promises a world leading network – that has been battered from pillar to post these last four years.
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.