Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What will the NBN cost?

The National Broadband Network is a great idea; but a few questions need to be answered urgently before we risk squandering $43 billion on the project.

Unfortunately, Labor is not providing any economic justification for a project that Kevin Rudd origionally attempted to justify on exactly those economic grounds . .  .


As it happened, the moment fitted perfectly into Labor mythology. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy had been trying to push the massive election promise through a tiny keyhole of funding. It didn’t fit. He tried re-shaping the promise but the dimensions were still too large. Puzzled, and uncertain of what to do next, he finally approached the leader.

And that’s where tradition intervened. Kevin Rudd could see Conroy’s problem. But he could also imagine what might be the transformative effect of a new technology, super-fast internet to every home – well, to 98 percent of them, anyway. So Rudd reached into his magic bag and pulled out an amazing bearer cheque for $43 billion dollars. Conroy might have sat back goggle-eyed. It was an enormous sum of money and the two might have paused, just for a second, to wonder what effect the huge boost to government expenditure might have had on interest-rates. But they probably didn’t, because that’s not part of Labor’s folklore. Instead, another story was woven. This narrative cantered on the visionary leader who refused to be bound by the limitations of normal mortals. Someone who could imagine the transforming benefits of the new scheme and who could implement ideas that were beyond the scope of others to even envisage.

It was a narrative that Mao Zedong’s propaganda department would have been proud of. It’s the type of story that North Korea still revels in. And today in Australia it’s the storyline behind our new broadband network; and it’s a good story too. Unfortunately it’s also one that’s looking increasingly problematic as the numbers start to be crunched through, although none of this appears likely to deter the government with proceeding with the scheme. It has too much invested in it already to allow this idea to be questioned. If the NBN went down, so would Labor’s credibility. The party has inextricably linked its future to the scheme’s success.

When back in April, 2009, the audacious scheme to build a National Broadband Network was first announced, we were enamoured of Rudd. Although some of the PM’s gloss had worn off, the polls demonstrated that Australians were still prepared to extend him their trust to a remarkable degree. People believed Rudd was clever and still thought that he was held in respect by the Labor movement. Few had any idea that many MP’s were already hoping that Rudd would chose to depart sooner, rather than later.

But the trouble was – during the period when Rudd was on top, at any rate – alternative ways of doing things were not considered. It’s part of a long Labor tradition, treating the leader as something more than a normal human being. Criticism of the subservient role John Curtin played to the US General MacArthur, for example, grates against the hagiography of him walking in the gardens of the Lodge, unable to sleep at night, as he worried about the possibility of the troopships returning from the Middle-East being torpedoed. No one doubts his concern for the diggers nor his fear and concern that the country could be invaded. Unfortunately such idolatry often prevents an accurate assessment of his government’s abysmal role in prosecuting the war from 1943 onwards.

Equally, Gough Whitlam became the Labor hero who led the party back to power in 1972, although with the benefit of hindsight it might appear far more remarkable that anyone ever thought the incompetent Billy McMahon ever seemed to have a chance of winning that election. Then the dismissal of Whitlam in the crisis of 1975 prevented anyone really analysing the numerous blunders of that administration. Even today the current Labor government is refusing to reveal documents to an academic researcher who believes these may reveal Whitlam effectively gave a green light to Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor.

Then Bob Hawke became the keeper of the flame until he was cut down by the party for someone who could win elections. But twenty-one years after the voters had banished Whitlam, they happily extinguished Paul Keating’s flame with, as the mission assignments have it, “extreme prejudice”. Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and then Beazley were in turn anointed as ‘the one’ – the brilliant lights that could prescribe the right policies for the country. But then, as each failed in the polls and proved their electability, every leader was in turn discarded. It turned out that they weren’t the real prophets, after all.

Then came Rudd. Everyone in Labor knew what he was like, but they stuck to him like glue, bathing in his approval ratings. The politicians were seemingly only too ready to swap their ideals for the power he promised if they just shut-up and followed him. Then, when the polls turned, so did the MP’s, cutting Rudd swiftly down and re-anointing their new Caesar, Gillard. Although she solemnly intoned that the government had lost its way (ignoring the fact that she’d been the very-influential deputy PM the entire time the party was in government) the new PM unfortunately then decided that there were only three areas of disorientation: the mining tax, asylum seekers and dealing with global warming.
As a result the broadband network has been absolved from proper scrutiny. Of course there are studies proving that it will be marvellous, even transformative, but when it comes to the details we’re asked to take a lot on trust. A good point at which to begin the examination is to follow the money trail. Do this and you quickly realise that many of the reports have been commissioned by companies or groups that stand to gain (and often a great deal) from the network proceeding. So do the analysis yourself. Ask yourself how the NBN will transform your life.
In my case, not at all – although I’m one of those ‘knowledge outworkers’ that is supposed to benefit most. I wrote this column from home, where the normal broadband connection works quite fast enough for me. I could get it faster, but I’d rather have the money for a coffee and I’d prefer to have a light, mobile device on which to read my news that I can take where I want. I call it a “paper”. I won’t be taking up the NBN – and neither have nearly enough Tasmanians to make the scheme worthwhile. We’ll be using wireless networks.

The NBN is an expensive lemon.

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