[the australian] THE last Coalition politician working the room after Tuesday's broadband debate at the National Press Club was neither Tony Smith nor Andrew Robb.
They departed as soon as the show was over.
The job was left to first-time MP Paul Fletcher. A former Optus executive and adviser to former communications minister Richard Alston, Fletcher is widely regarded as the architect of the opposition's broadband policy, which was unveiled by Smith and Robb at a rambling news conference two hours before the debate.
After Tony Abbott's fumbling performance on The 7.30 Report, during which the Opposition Leader told Kerry O'Brien, "If you want to drag me into a technical discussion here, I'm not going to be very successful", it appears Fletcher has adopted the role of party spokesman.
It was Fletcher who fronted Jon Faine on ABC radio in Melbourne yesterday after requests for appearances by Abbott, Smith and Robb were knocked back.
Smith's only broadcast interview yesterday was on rival network MTR.
In normal circumstances a frontbencher would hit the airwaves after announcing a much-anticipated $6.3 billion initiative during a tight election campaign.
There is growing concern that the opposition has lost its chance to keep the heat on the government over its plan to spend $43bn building the National Broadband Network, a massive infrastructure project dreamed up and implemented by Labor without a cost-benefit analysis. And some of the harshest criticism is coming from inside the Coalition. Some Liberal MPs are asking why the detail of the Coalition's policy, which relies on private sector backing and a complicated mix of different wireless, fibre and copper technologies, was withheld until this week.
The plan was criticised by industry figures and commentators. Many have a vested interest in the optical fibre technology favoured by Labor, but the dissenting voices in the Liberal Party argue they should never have been given the opportunity to voice their concerns during the campaign.
"Now is not the time to be getting bogged down in detail," one said.
But the more damaging criticism is that Smith has lost the argument about fiscal responsibility during a campaign in which Labor's ability to spend public money is meant to be a central issue.
Julia Gillard last month responded to cabinet leaks about her scrutiny of a pension increase by saying: "I held them up to the light . . . I asked every question, because I wanted to satisfy myself they were affordable: affordable today and affordable tomorrow."
Why, some conservative MPs are asking, is Labor not being held to the same standard on NBN?
The broadband debate is complicated but at its heart lies a simple ideological division.
The Coalition is offering an "affordable" network with lesser technology and lower baseline speeds (12 megabits per second). Its plan relies on private sector involvement. The government believes that business can't be trusted and is making a bet on one expensive technology (fibre) that should serve consumers further into the future but provides blazing speeds (100mbps) that many Australians may not need.
Smith did not pursue Communications Minister Stephen Conroy over the speed issue at the National Press Club this week. This is despite Malcolm Turnbull giving an impassioned speech just three day earlier at a forum in his Sydney electorate of Wentworth in which he described the NBN as "a gigantic torching of taxpayers' money".
Turnbull went on to argue "there simply isn't demand at the household and every small business level for internet at that speed, at a price which would make it even remotely financially viable."
The issue of Labor's accounting treatment was also largely ignored during the debate. Conroy describes the NBN as a commercial investment that will generate a commercial return because it enables him to keep most of the cost off the budget bottom line. But the probability of a modest return is treated with great scepticism by many observers, including the Business Council of Australia and the telecommunications companies that declined to invest in the original version of NBN Co.
Royal Bank of Scotland analyst Ian Martin told clients yesterday: "One of our key concerns with the ALP government's NBN policy is the mismatch of resources proposed to be spent -- that is, $43bn -- with benefits unlikely to come close to this."
Smith declined a request for an interview. Through a spokesman, he said: "Our responsible and affordable plan was discussed by myself and my colleagues in the media today. We will continue to promote the benefits of our approach and the failings of Labor . . . until election day."
Smith, who is a former staffer to Peter Costello, took over the communications spokesman's role from Nick Minchin during a cabinet reshuffle in December.
Minchin took any opportunity to get stuck into Conroy over the NBN and was a strong defender of the rights of Telstra's 1.4 million shareholders. Comparisons were being made between Minchin's more aggressive style and Smith's approach yesterday.
During his time as a Costello staffer, Smith was sometimes so careful that he would sometimes respond to questions by saying: "Off the record -- no comment". It is a similar risk-adverse strategy that is raising eyebrows this week.
Libs lost for words over broadband plans