Savaging a popular policy a tricky task for Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to the shadow communications portfolio may be just what the debate over the national broadband network needs. It could be just what the Liberal Party needs, too. But Turnbull has a hell of a job: to persuade the electorate that a gigantic, government-subsidised gift of a super-fast internet is a bad idea. An Essential Report poll late last year found 65 per cent of Australians thought it was important the NBN was built. Sixty per cent of Coalition supporters did, too. As a general rule, Australians like free stuff even if eventually they have to pay for it through tax.

Both the government and the opposition have lined up their new portfolios in time for the next sitting of Parliament.

The election is over and Lab or wants change, not continuity. Julia Gillard has tried to eliminate all traces of the embarrassing Kevin Rudd era.

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On the other side, the Coalition did astonishingly well at the election. So, Tony Abbott’s thinking goes, why fix what’s working? Turnbull’s move to communications is the only significant change.

The Coalition’s broadband message was an unmitigated disaster during the election – the biggest problem with an otherwise robust campaign.

It’s possible that Abbott is laying a cunning trap for his rival. From now on, the debate over the broadband is going to be intimately linked with Liberal Party leadership questions. And who would want to be saddled with the job of opposing one of Labor’s most popular policies?

But Abbott needs Turnbull to do well. Ever since he took over in November 2009, Abbott’s leadership has burnt fast and hot. His strategy was to barge into The Lodge. Now it seems likely the Coalition faces a full term in opposition. Abbott has to turn off his fast burn and apply slow, indirect heat to the Gillard government. He will need his shadow ministers to break down government policies bit by bit, not try to blow them up as quickly as possible. In other words, Abbott is relying on Turnbull to make the broadband network look like insulation, not the mining tax. Turnbull may be able to do so.

Since 2007, the government’s Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has successfully portrayed any Coalition critic of his broadband plan as a Luddite, as if they were opposed to the very idea of the internet and just a sledgehammer away from machine breaking. Conroy won’t be able to play that card now. You couldn’t parody Turnbull’s love of technology. He was not just the chairman of Ozemail; he recently released an iPhone application dedicated to all things Malcolm.

The Coalition can’t stop the broadband network, but it will be able to show how poorly thought through the project has been. After all, the network the government is building is not the network it took to the 2007 election. That first plan failed.

On a now infamous flight between Canberra and Sydney in April last year, Conroy used the time he could get with Kevin Rudd to explain their $4.7 billion scheme wouldn’t work. The two men sketched the

$43 billion scheme we’re getting now.

If we’ve learnt anything about the internet, it’s that we always find new uses for it and we always want more speed. But that doesn’t mean this specific network at this specific price, built in this specific style is the best way to get it. And it doesn’t mean the network has to be built by government. Before the 2007 election, Telstra was desperate to roll out high-speed broadband itself. Had the Howard government made some regulatory changes, we would already have the network at no cost to the taxpayer.

There’s a catalogue of problems with the NBN. A decade after Telstra’s privatisation, the government has taken responsibility for telecommunications.

Unfortunately, the Coalition’s alternative policy does little to resolve the deep regulatory issues that have held back Australian broadband. But right now, the burden of proof is on the government to show its NBN is worth the price tag.

The Liberals need their old, discarded leader to knock serious holes in the national broadband network.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.