[the australian] THE government has been accused of cynically using the National Broadband Network and the GP super clinics program to sandbag marginal seats.
The accusation came after Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan yesterday travelled to Townsville to launch construction of the NBN on the mainland in the ultra-marginal electorate of Herbert -- one of several marginal seats that benefit from the early rollout.
And an analysis of the GP super clinics program has revealed that of the 13 clinics identified by the government as fully or partially operational, eight are in marginal electorates, while of the 22 promised during the election campaign, half are in marginal seats.
Broadband and health have emerged as key election battlegrounds, with the Prime Minister putting them at the centre of Monday's campaign launch and Tony Abbott vowing to dump Labor's NBN and GP super clinics programs if elected.
On their visit to Townsville yesterday, the Prime Minister and Treasurer highlighted the economic growth and new jobs the NBN would deliver to the region and declared broadband a vital issue in this Saturday's election.
Townsville is the first of five pilot sites on which construction of the NBN has begun on the mainland. Townsville falls in the Coalition-held seat of Herbert, which is now notionally Labor with a margin of just 0.3 per cent after a redistribution since the 2007 election.
Households in Tasmania have already begun using the NBN and more than 1600km of regional backhaul links have been laid in regions such as that around Mount Isa in Queensland.
But Townsville, where about 3000 homes and businesses will have access to the super-fast broadband network under the pilot, is the first mainland town to receive the NBN.
The five NBN pilot sites, which were announced in March, service three marginal seats, one safe Labor seat and an independent seat.
Labor is staging a last-week blitz on marginal seats, particularly in Queensland and western Sydney, as polling shows the election will be tight.
Last night, Ms Gillard confirmed she would join Mr Abbott tonight at a town hall forum held at Brisbane's Broncos Leagues Club. She also reissued a challenge to the Opposition Leader to join her in a one-hour economic debate before the event, although Mr Abbott declined and continues to demand a 30-minute debate.
The Prime Minister has wasted no time visiting regional areas to sell her plan, announced at the campaign launch on Monday, to harness the power of the NBN to deliver telemedicine services, including online consultation with specialists and after-hours access to general practitioners.
The initiatives, worth nearly $400m, are part of a plan to appeal to people in remote and rural areas and city fringes while also capitalising on Mr Abbott's promise to dump the NBN.
Besides Herbert, the electorates targeted for the early NBN rollout include Gilmore on the NSW south coast, held by the Coalition but now notionally Labor with a margin of 0.3 per cent, and Kingston on the southern fringe of Adelaide, which is held by Labor with a margin of 4.4 per cent.
A further 14 second-release sites were announced last month, 12 of which service marginal electorates.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy yesterday denied that politics had anything to do with the choice of sites, pointing out that he was not even involved in their selection.
Instead, Senator Conroy said the sites were selected at arm's length by NBN Co, the government-owned company established to design, build and operate the NBN, on the basis of criteria such as engineering and construction requirements, network design and the level of existing broadband infrastructure.
Senator Conroy said the timing of construction also had nothing to do with the election and had been planned for months.
"For many months I have said on the public record, that the first-release sites would start construction from July-August," he said.
"The NBN continues to be rolled out on time and on budget."
He said NBN Co signed a contract with Ergon Energy last month for the construction works in Townsville. A spokeswoman for NBN Co said construction works would begin at a second NBN pilot site in South Australia this week, and at the remaining three sites within weeks.
But opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb seized on the start of construction in Townsville to attack the NBN rollout as the "most cynical exercise imaginable". "For Labor, the NBN has always been about politics not policy," Mr Robb said. "It is glaringly obvious that locations identified for the supposed early stage of the NBN rollout have been based purely on political calculations as part of Labor's broadest sandbagging strategy designed to buy a dishononourable victory in this election. "
Mr Robb said Labor was also using taxpayer money for political purposes to build GP clinics in marginal seats, creating unnecessary competition for existing family GP practices.
But Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the sites for the GP super clinics had been selected purely on the basis of need.
"Regional seats and outer suburban electorates, which are short of doctors thanks to Mr Abbott's cap on GP training places, are typically marginal seats," Ms Roxon said. "We make no apology for ensuring these communities have access to doctors and other health professionals. "
Calculations by The Australian show that of the 13 super clinics identified by the government as being fully or partially operational, eight are in marginal electorates -- five of which are held by the government, and three by the Coalition. In addition, half the new super clinics announced during the election campaign have been pledged to marginal electorates, according to figures by the GP newspaper Australian Doctor.
The paper yesterday said 11 of the 22 super clinics Labor has promised to build if re-elected are in marginal seats, while five are in safe Coalition seats and five in safe Labor seats and one in a safe independent seat. One of the most recent pledges was the weekend promise by Ms Roxon to spend $7m on a super clinic in Coffs Harbour, in the NSW Central Coast seat of Cowper, which is held by the Nationals and would fall to Labor with just a 1.2 per cent swing. For the super clinics already operating, the Labor-held marginals include the Darwin seat of Solomon, which needs a swing of just over 0.2 per cent to change sides, and Macquarie, the country's second most vulnerable Labor seat with a margin of just 0.1 per cent.
Solomon was targeted just last Friday for the announcement of its second GP Super Clinic, to be built in the northern suburbs of Darwin -- a move that has alarmed the state's Australian Medical Association. Despite supporting the super clinic previously announced for nearby Palmerston, the AMA says the northern suburbs are well served and the new clinic is not needed.
AMA president Andrew Pesce said if the GP clinics had been located purely on the basis of need, then the government should be able to demonstrate empirically that was the case. "I'm not sure that's necessarily so, but I'm not going to dispute it because I haven't done the research," he said.
Dr Pesce said the taxpayer-funded clinics should only be located in areas where there was no possibility that local GPs could service community need.
NBN 'sandbags' marginal seats