Sunday, September 19, 2010

Australia - Former opposition leader back as shadow communications spokesman, attacking the NBN and the clean feed Internet proposals

[the age] HE THOUGHT he had quit politics altogether, then as seemed fitting for a character that Mark Twain could have written, announced reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated. We speak, of course, of Malcolm Turnbull, who is back where nature and destiny wills him: front and centre in the national political scene.

Turnbull is possibly the only politician in the country who enjoyed the election campaign. For most participants and onlookers it was a bruising affair, long on tactics, short on vision.

As Australia pondered its decision in July and August, Turnbull minded his business below the national radar, tending kitchen gardens in Bondi, stalking constituents on public transport. It was all care, not much responsibility beyond the important task of holding for the Liberal Party his Sydney electorate, where the ostentatiously rich and the moderately famous cohabit with ferals and beach bums, and the odd reality TV production crew.
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But the diverting frolic had to end: the Member for Wentworth is a character too serially enormous to be micro. Higher duties beckoned. Tony Abbott had promised to accommodate Turnbull in his new frontbench and so it came to pass this week. Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb would hang on to their economic spots like grim death, and Turnbull could not be given climate change because of his public disagreement with his party on its own policy, so the portfolio options were somewhat limited. Predictably, he took the initiative. Turnbull had quite clearly been angling for the communications portfolio as his best-case scenario - and fortune smiled, even if Abbott's smile may have been more a reflection of gritted teeth.

Politics can be enjoyed for its natural internal symmetry; it tends to compose its narratives in concentric circles. Abbott demolished Turnbull's leadership, now Abbott has framed Turnbull's task as nothing short of the demolition of Labor's $43 billion national broadband network.

Turnbull was certainly unwilling during the first demolition, his own. One suspects he will be unwilling in the second putative demolition of a policy he would not instinctively oppose.

''Demolition'' would not be Turnbull's preferred terminology when it comes to a policy as big picture as the national broadband network. He is a builder and an entrepreneur - he would not reflexively oppose this concept - even though as an economic dry he would be more enamoured of a private sector solution.

But whatever his natural inclinations on the subject, the new shadow communications spokesman will not be giving the government a free pass either. He has taken on his leader's commission, on his own terms, with alacrity. Turnbull has already launched an elegant critique of the policy that Labor used to broker minority government with the parliamentary independents (and used more broadly with the community to demonstrate it had a plan for the present and a vision for the future).

Because it's Turnbull, the A-team of the business journalism world has already come out in force to either endorse or take significant issue with his reasoning.

Political commentators have spent the week less interested in the intricacies of policy discussion and more curious about whether Abbott has deliberately set up his rival with mission impossible. Make Turnbull, the capital P progressive, wear the opprobrium of seemingly arguing against progress; make the man who cheerfully demolished Brendan Nelson's leadership participate in some less satisfying political combat. Quite delicious really.

Turnbull is not engaging thus far in anyone's revenge tragedy; he has put the car in first gear and rolled confidently down the driveway framing his approach like this: if Labor has elected to have discussion about the NBN being a commercial proposition, a project that can stack up on its dollars and cents merits, then let's apply some due diligence. If the government had chosen to frame the debate purely in terms of the national interest - we need a new broadband highway, hang the cost - then it would be a different discussion.

His first-run argument is the NBN is too expensive, the government has failed to undertake a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and what about the question of long-term value? What if this network ends up being worth half what we all paid for it?

Of course Turnbull's framing ignores the small inconvenience that the government has actually applied both sets of arguments to the NBN - trust us, it can work as a commercial proposition, and this investment is absolutely in the national interest.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy rejects Turnbull's line of argument. ''There is a full costing in the McKinsey [implementation study] when Malcolm tries to pretend there isn't,'' Conroy says when we speak in his Canberra office this week.

''Claims of cost blowouts are just political spin; the full costing is there. The long-term value is the revenue stream. As services are being rolled out in regional Australia, Malcolm Turnbull will have to stand there and say we will rip that out, that fibre, and give you a second-rate wireless service. Malcolm is an excellent communicator. You can be a great communicator but if your policy is deeply flawed then you won't be able to sell the policy - and if he's the tech-head he claims he is, then he should stop pretending that a wireless service can match a fibre service.''

It will be good sport between these two.

TURNBULL is not thinking in terms of demolition when he speaks to The Age. He is thinking about the future and how rapidly it is changing. This is a person instinctively happy in a fast-flowing river, and communications is certainly that.

In a broad-ranging discussion about his new portfolio responsibilities, Turnbull doesn't provide complete answers to every question, but he puts down some interesting markers. It is abundantly clear that the broadband policy the Coalition took to the election in 2010 will not be the policy next time around.

''I think there are a lot of good ideas in that policy, but there wasn't the opportunity to sell it or explain it in the fury of the campaign,'' Turnbull says.

Is this an implicit criticism of your predecessor? Was the election policy unveiled too late, was it patched together, undersold? Perish the thought! ''No. I have nothing but praise for [former communications spokesman] Tony Smith and my colleagues.''

Best to be gracious. Smith was demoted in Abbott's recent reshuffle to make way for Turnbull. The Coalition's policy was badly received by a number of analysts. Abbott - a man of pens not iPads - declared he was no tech-head when asked to explain it. When it came to broadband, Labor outflanked the Liberals politically as well as on the policy substance - one of the few examples in the recent campaign where this observation can be made with some confidence.

So what is the way ahead? Is it a new policy? Yes, is the short answer. Turnbull provides a more diplomatic formulation than 'I'm going to rip that thing up and begin again from scratch,' but you get the drift. It's the context, stupid.

''The context could be very different at the next election. These are very, very dynamic industries. We will need to reassess policy in the light of changed circumstances,'' he says.

Turnbull ducks what is regarded by some as Labor's most substantial micro-economic reform of its first term in office - the question of whether Telstra should be broken in two to improve competition in the telecommunications market. He won't express a definitive view beyond supporting the broad concept of competition. ''I certainly believe we've got to promote competition, everybody does, but I'm not going to rush to judgment [on structural separation].''

But if Telstra believes it has a friend and natural ally in Turnbull as the company had a staunch friend in John Howard and Nick Minchin, and ultimately in Peter Costello - politicians who privatised the behemoth without completing the changes necessary to ensure a public monopoly did not become a destructive private one - it should think again.

He makes a couple of pointed remarks in relation to the telco, the most pointed being that he does not intend being a cheerleader for Telstra.

''I know Telstra is a very tough competitor; they are a ferocious competitor. It would be wrong to think I'm a cheerleader for Telstra,'' he says.

He shows no reluctance to buy into the most willing fight going in media circles - whether the ABC should be allowed to expand. Newspapers and commercial TV don't like it: News Ltd has been ferocious in its opposition; Fairfax, owner of The Age, surly rather than feral.

Turnbull - bravely, given the poisonous atmosphere - says what he thinks. He has no problem with an expansionist ABC, and newspapers need to get real about the source of their commercial pressures. He is not inclined to run the conservative politician script of bagging the ABC either - it does ''a good professional job'' with news and current affairs, he says.

On the vexed question of whether the ABC should merge with SBS - Turnbull's instinct is to defend SBS as a separate entity. ''Australia is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world,'' he says. He believes SBS is part of that mix.

On the current rules that reserve major sporting events for free-to-air television he is more delphic, but he expresses a general view that the framework is beneficial.

''It's important that key sporting events should be available on free-to-air television,'' he says.

Malcolm's back in the middle

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