Malcolm Turnbull: 'Australia's worst ever communications minister'

September 24, 2015
The NBN has been a disaster bought to us by Malcolm Turnbull — champion of 'moderate liberalism'.

“When it comes to technology policy, [now Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull has been a disaster. The Member for Wentworth will be remembered as Australia's worst ever Communications Minister — the man who single handedly demolished the NBN [National Broadband Network] and put a polite face on draconian Data Retention and Internet Piracy Laws.”

This is the view of technology commentator Renai LeMay, writing in the online journal Delimiter on September 14, the day Turnbull successfully challenged Tony Abbott for prime minister. LeMay recounts a litany of evils that Turnbull, the supposed Coalition champion of "moderate liberalism", has overseen in the past several years.

"Foremost among Turnbull's sins has been the shocking tragedy that has been his stewardship of the National Broadband Network project," LeMay said.

"It's true that Labor's near-universal fibre vision for the NBN came with a fistful of flaws. It tied Australia's largest ever infrastructure project to a brand new, untested start-up. It abandoned any pretence of bipartisan policy development on a long-term project that would span multiple governments, and it chronically underestimated the complexity and effort required in actually rolling out optic fibre cables to almost every house and office in Australia.

"However, the strength of the policy was always that it would have laid the foundation for the next century of world-class telecommunications infrastructure in this country, fuelling the development of a massive digital economy and better health, education, business and social outcomes. Along the way, it would also have completely broken Telstra's stranglehold on market competition.

"Turnbull's appalling Multi-Technology Mix approach to the NBN will, in sharp contrast, set Australia significantly back.

"The policy will result in massive cash windfalls to the likes of Telstra and Optus, allowing Australia's two major telcos to offload their outdated copper and HFC cable infrastructure at a premium cost to the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, that same taxpayer will face a legacy of decades of technical failures from Turnbull's insistence that copper cables and 25Mbps (megabit per second) speeds are good enough for Australia's broadband needs.

"The reality is that they do [have a little life in them] — but only for the next few years. By 2020, when Turnbull's MTM vision is scheduled to be completed, Australians will already be clamouring to upgrade these platforms, and competing countries will be many years ahead of us.

"Labor's vision would have seen Australia's telecommunications needs provided for the next century. Turnbull's vision will barely last ten years until 2025. In point of fact, there are plenty of people openly stating it is not even sufficient for the needs of today."

In the Melbourne Engineer article “The NBN: Why it's slow, expensive and obsolete”, Melbourne University Professor Rod Tucker observed: "The Abbott Coalition government came to power two years ago this week with a promise to change Labor's fibre to the premises (FTTP) National Broadband Network to one using less-expensive fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) technologies, spruiking its network with the three-word slogan: 'Fast, Affordable, Sooner.'

"But with the release in August of the 2016 corporate plan and in the light of overseas developments, it is clear that the Coalition's broadband network will not provide adequate bandwidth, will be no more affordable than Labor's FTTP network and will take almost as long to roll out."

The former Labor government's estimates for its FTTP NBN rose from $40.9billion in December 2010 to $44.9 billion in September 2013. By comparison, the estimated cost of Turnbull's FFTN network almost doubled from $28.5 billion before the 2013 federal election to between $46 billion and $56 billion in August this year.

Not only is the Coalition’s network more expensive than Labor’s, it will also take longer to implement. Turnbull’s original target was to bring at least 25 Mbps (Megabits per second) to all 13 million Australian premises by 2016. That target has recently been quietly dropped and replaced with a new target of more than 50 Mbps to 90% of premises by 2020.

Tucker said: "Australia's broadband capabilities are falling behind its international peers. According to internet companies Ookla and Akami, Australia's broadband speed lags well behind other advanced and even emerging economies.

"In 2009, Ookla ranked Australia's average broadband download speed as 39th in the world. Since then, our international ranking has steadily declined to 59th place earlier this year.

"If in 2013 the Coalition had simply allowed NBN Co to get on with the job of rolling out its fibre-to-the-premises NBN rather than changing it to an inferior multi-technology mix, it may well have ended up spending less money and delivered Australia a much better network."

Turnbull has presided over, and vocally defended, this shambles of a second-rate, obsolete NBN all this time. He deserves public condemnation for this social and economic disaster.

Over and above this, however, is the looming issue of the eventual ownership of the NBN. The elephant in the room is the plan to privatise the NBN, once the taxpayer has forked out billions to construct it.

As Professor John Quiggin pointed out in the lead up to the 2013 election: "The differences between the two schemes [Labor and Liberal] are less important than their similarities: both proposals will cost billions, and both are greatly complicated by the need to work with Telstra's existing network. These similarities point to one crucial and largely overlooked fact: the construction of the national broadband network would be much simpler and cheaper if Telstra had never been privatised."

The publicly-owned Telstra telecommunications giant was sold by the John Howard Coalition government in the early 2000s, after a huge but ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the sell-off, led by the union movement.

Now, the NBN is being built as a government-owned asset, but is proposed to eventually be sold to the major corporations and their wealthy owners, including the telecommunications companies and the banks. This key aspect of the future of the national broadband system is hardly mentioned.

Quiggin said: "Private investment can only be secured at rates of return far higher than those that were required when investment was funded by public debt. From the failure to upgrade Brisbane airport to the collapse of the PPP [Private Public Partnership] model for new toll roads and the huge increases in the cost of electricity, the story has been the same. It is clear, in retrospect, that telecommunications reform has failed, at least as far as the fixed-line services are concerned.

"We would have been better off if we had never gone down the path of corporatisation, privatisation and competitive entry. The privatised infrastructure model presents us with a choice between inadequate investment and high prices. The only solution is a return to public investment."

In short, the NBN path championed by Turnbull is resulting in an obsolete, expensive and delayed national broadband system, built with taxpayers' money, but destined to be sold off to his mates in the investment banking industry.

No wonder he has been dubbed "Australia's worst ever Communications Minister".

The task before the union movement and the community generally is to start now to mobilise to prevent the NBN, which will be the country's most important single public asset, being privatised in the interests of big business and the wealthy 1%.

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