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Thursday, 01 October 2009 15:28

Nationals wary of NBN hard hats and fluoro

The Emissions Trading Scheme legislation isn’t the only issue that’s causing the Coalition parties to take a more critical look the partnership: The Liberals and Nationals are still to sort out how they will approach the National Broadband Network.

And while the Opposition’s Leader in the Senate Nick Minchin says the partners stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ on NBN issues, don’t tell the Nationals, who are just as likely to step aside and let the daylight shine through.

In fact, the Nationals party room has not yet formed a single view on the NBN. Much will depend on the detail expected to emerge from the implementation study which will determine which regional Aussies get fibre, and which get some other technology like wireless or satellite.

Regardless, there is a solid rump within the Nationals that will find it hard to argue that the NBN is anything but good news. And who already find it difficult to back completely Senator Minchin’s scorched earth, oppose-everything strategy on broadband.

Right now, a Senate Order means that no NBN-related matters will be debated in the Senate until Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has tabled the findings of the so-called Expert Panel and the ACCC into the original NBN RFP (request for proposals).

Senator Conroy has said repeatedly that neither report would be tabled – given commercially sensitive material contained in both – but that the broad findings of each would be released.

Equally, Nick Minchin has said in August that the Liberals and Nationals were as one – shoulder-to-should, no daylight – in enforcing that Senate Order.

Now spare a thought for the Nationals. The NBN, to a very great extent, is the party’s own policy – or at least it’s fulfils a large part of the Nationals wish-list. In 2005 and with much fanfare, the Nationals’ Page Research arm launched a report recommending a nation-wide fibre roll-out as the best way to address inequities between regions and cities.

And two of the primary drivers behind the Page studies were the then newly-elected senators Fiona Nash and Barnaby Joyce. Both argued the case publicly and forcefully in the context the legislation that allowed the further sell-down of Telstra (and can take a large part of the credit for the regional telecom programs that eventuated, like the now defunct Opel venture.)

Barnaby and Fiona Nash didn’t have much room to move when the Rudd Government announced its $43 billion plan – in principle at least, they had to support the idea. It’s what they argued for. To be fair, both have questions about how the program will roll-out, and how to maximise the benefits. But these two know exactly who they represent.

Both senators clearly believe that broadband improvements will offer regional Australians huge economic and social benefits – from better education and health services to more jobs.

Nationals leader Warren Truss has outwardly supported the Minchin campaign over the “bungled” government broadband plans, most recently issuing a press release attacking the structural separation of Telstra.

But the Nationals’ are not all lining up behind the leader. Push come to shove, the party of regional Australia would be crazy-brave to try to argue the case against the NBN.

Truss can say what he wants. But the party room knows that the market has failed in the regions in providing equity of service. And it knows that operational separation of Telstra has failed. And it understands the benefits of improved broadband to regional Australia – real, tangible, measureable.

Barnaby and Fiona Nash live deep in regional Australia (Barnaby in the Queensland centre of St George and Fiona on a working property near Young in central New South Wales.) Both live the issues they represent.

And then there is the issue of hard hats and flouro jackets. With election looming, and with the winners of the $250 million regional blackspots program about to be announced, you just know that Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy will parade through every marginal seat in regional Australia in hard hats and jackets as they turn the soil on the trenches that will deliver utopian broadband.

There is simply no way any Nationals senator could consider standing up in front of that jobs juggernaut – to say nothing of the actual broadband services it will deliver – and try to stare it down.

The Nationals have always been a bit different. But they’re not that different.

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