NBN Brings Policy Back Into Politics

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There are a number of ways of looking at the Coalition's NBN policy announcement this week.

One is that no matter who wins the election on 14 September, Australia will get a weighty investment in broadband infrastructure. Given the huge benefits likely to flow on from that initial investment – including in applications and businesses not yet even thought of – that's a big win for Australia's society and economy.

High-quality internet will increasingly underpin all aspects of civil and economic life in decades to come. Even if you're not convinced of the technical merits of the Coalition plan – and most tech analysts, including Kieran Cummings today in NM, appear not to be – we can at least give two cheers along with veteran telco analyst Paul Budde, who writes approvingly of the fact that, at long last, the Coalition seems to agree that “the NBN is not a waste of money”.

A second way of looking at the Coalition's policy is simply that it's nice to have a debate about policy for a change. After years of ridiculing the NBN as a bunch of fancy circuitry for nerds, the Coalition, no doubt dragged kicking and screaming by Malcolm Turnbull, has finally put forward something approaching a credible policy on the issue.

The fact that we now have policies from both major parties allows experts and ordinary citizens to weigh up the merits of the two policies and decide which they think is better. If this seems bizarrely old-fashioned and deliberative, that's because it is. There is now so little in the way of substantial policy debate in Australian politics that when an episode breaks out, the whole thing seems rather quaint and unusual.

One of the surprising consequences of the changes to our media landscape in recent years is that tech journalism has thrived. It is one of the few policy areas where the specialist media is big enough and smart enough to hold political parties to account.

Unlike the way ordinary politics is reported, tech journalists are expert enough to push back against politicians pushing forward policies they regard as untested or inaccurate. As a result, and unlike the way the NBN has been treated by the Daily Telegraph and other News Limited publications, the tenor of NBN coverage in the tech media has been critical, skeptical and well informed.

In recent years, we have even seen running battles between Turnbull and tech sector journos, such as the ABC's Nick Ross and Delimiter's Renai LeMay. There is little doubt that the higher standard of scrutiny exerted on NBN policy is one of the reasons Australian voters are getting two competing policies of substance from the major parties regarding broadband.

A third perspective on the NBN is to parse the likely political consequences of the broadband battleground. These are quite interesting, and by no means as negative for Labor as the generally dismal electoral outlook suggests.

Prior to the release of this policy, the Coalition has generally tried to ignore the NBN, or to attack the very idea of spending government money on ICT infrastructure, as Tony Smith did before the 2010 election.

That position has proved to be untenable in the run-up to the 2013 election. The NBN has for some time been one of the few policies of the current government that voters actually like. (Let's also remind ourselves that the NBN is the reason there is a Gillard Government in the first place: it was crucial in winning the support of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to form a minority government). Neutralising that appeal, or at least presenting a politically saleable alternative, was clearly the number one aim of Tuesday's glitzy announcement.   

But in advancing an alternative, the Coalition has presented a stationary target for Labor to attack. As a result, for perhaps the first time this year, attention is actually focussing on a Coalition policy. The reception has been equivocal at best, with much media carrying negative articles (though of course the cheerleaders at the News Limited tabloids have been highly positive).

The obvious discomfort shown by Abbott when asked to discuss the policy at Tuesday's launch was a welcome reminder of the distant days of 2007, when Abbott stumbled through a disastrous election campaign as Health Minister. For Labor, any week in which the media is not relentlessly focussed on the government's shortcomings is a week it can chalk in the “win” column.

That it was so difficult for the Coalition to simply present their policy is a rare ray of hope for the government heading into the election campaign. Tony Abbott is at his damaging best as an attack dog and as a purveyor of glib one-liners. Labor will yearn for an opportunity, however slim, to use the roll-out of further Coalition policies as a lever with which to angle the discussion away from Julia Gillard's unpopularity and back towards Abbott and the spectre of a Coalition government. If a deal could be done on Gonski, Labor could then pivot to favourable territory on education.

The popularity of the NBN suggests another way forward for Labor: by championing infrastructure. Voters like infrastructure, even if they hate the deficits and government borrowing required to finance it. As Alan Kohler pointed out yesterday, the political genius of the NBN in accounting terms is that, as an investment in a government-owned asset, it doesn't show up in the deficit.

In any case, Labor has already conceded that May's budget will again be billions in the red. Given the historically low bond yields currently on offer for Australian government debt, an election platform that promises big new investments in nation-building infrastructure might be worth considering, especially given the Coalition has recently ruled out all federal funding for urban rail.

All this may be well too late for many voters, who appear to have made up their minds. It also presupposes a Labor Party that can put aside its internal difficulties and focus on the main game of the September election – no certainty, given recent events. In the meantime, let's just enjoy a rare spell of policy debate, before the stunts and antics reassert their baleful dominance over Australia's political debate.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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