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Wednesday, 11 August 2010 22:32

Coalition NBN 'policy' to blame for Abbott's embarrassment


The Coalition NBN policy's total focus on the 'how' of broadband rather than the 'why' has left its leader in the unenviable position of trying to justify the choice of technologies that he does not understand and has marginalised the NBN as an election issue.

On his blog today, long time telecoms industry participant and commentator, David Havyatt, said: "In 2007 the NBN (Mark I) was the defining policy (other than climate change) that delineated the ALP with having a view of the future. Both of these policies were launched well ahead of the relevant election; they became part of the narrative delineating the parties.

"This coalition policy has been snuck out eleven days from polling day. Worse the leader wasn't able to stand beside the shadow releasing it, and couldn't personally defend it [when interviewed by Kerry O'Brien on the ABC]."

Go and read the transcript of Kerry O'Brien's grilling of Tony Abbott on the ABC's web site. It's embarrassing. Abbott is totally out of his depth as O'Brien quotes at him comments from "Professor Rod Tucker from Melbourne University with a string of qualifications in [telecommunications technology] as long as your arm," trying to pin Abbott down on exactly how many bits per second the Coalition NBN will deliver, and how.

It's all very well for Abbott to plead that he is "not a tech head". He has only his own party to blame for lowering the level of debate to this.

As a key determinant of Australia's economic future broadband infrastructure deserves to be high profile and deserves to be a topic that the Opposition leader can competently debate: at the level of its importance as infrastructure but not at the level of the relative merits and capabilities of various technologies.  But since the Coalition policy itself never ventured onto higher ground, Abbott got what he deserved.


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No matter whether you subscribe to the ALP vision for a national broadband network or the Coalition version (which does not by any stretch of the imagination deserve to be called a vision) there is one underlying truth on which, I hope few would argue: that communications infrastructure is as important to the economic and social welfare of the nation going forward as other infrastructures were in the past. The comparisons usually made being made with railways and, before these, in other countries, man-made waterways.

Even with that as a given there is endless scope for argument as to what bandwidth is needed and how best to achieve it (government funded monopoly v total free market competition and everything in between).

In this election debate any focus on such critical long term issues has been sadly lacking: the broadband debate at the highest level has degenerated into arguments about bits per second, and the laws of physics limitations of wireless technologies.

The contrast between this and the last election is stark. The then Opposition Labor Party unveiled its NBN policy in March months before the November election. In one stroke it seized the initiative from a Coalition Government whose broadband policy had had been a track record of multiple and unrealised policys over many years.

Remember the Howard Government's 2004 National Broadband Strategy? A Clayton's strategy if ever there was one. That sank without trace only to be followed by an equally unimpressive document, the Broadband Blueprint in 2006, which failed to even acknowledge the existence of its predecessor.

Now the tables are turned: it is the incumbent that has the clarity of vision for the broadband future and the challenger that is seeking to present an alternative, but it is an alternative without vision.


In the ALP's 2007 Broadband Policy - for a $4.7b FTTN network that would deliver at least 12Mbps to over 90 percent of the population - six of its 21 pages were devoted to justifying the need for a national broadband network.

In 2007 release of the ALP policy was front page news, and much of the coverage centred on these higher goals. The Australian (whose owner Rupert Murdoch had been quoted in the ALP's policy document saying: "The Government should be spending $10 billion or $12 billion to take [broadband] to every home in Australia. They do it in Japan, they do it in South Korea. We should be able to do it here") questioned whether the ALP plan to spend was sufficiently ambitious, "It's also worth asking...whether the 'need for speed' in Internet connections has already moved beyond even Labor's sensible plans."

Today the planned speed and the planned spend of ALP policy have move well beyond those envisaged in 2007. The level of debate, alas, has gone the other way and there seems little hope at this late stage of raising the bar.

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