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No FTTH under alternative Oz NBN plan, says Oppn. leader

Did Tony Abbott forget his own policy or re-write it on the fly?

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The last possible imitation of sanity has abandoned Australia's National Broadband Network debate, with opposition leader Tony Abbott accused of abandoning his party's “DIY fibre” policy to save Australians from exposure to asbestos.

Which it cannot possibly achieve.

The FTTN-plus-DIY policy was already subject to criticism on the basis of cost to consumers - that it would create a digital divide between those that can afford the cost of a fibre pull and those who cannot.

In the face of the unsurprising discovery that old civil infrastructure in Australia includes asbestos, independent MP Rob Oakeshott has said the Liberal leader plans to abandon even that economic rationalist DIY option.

Abbott told parliament that under his government "pits and pipes "will not be touched" over last 500m," Oakeshott said on Twitter.

True or not, it's a clear indication that we can no longer expect sanity in this debate.

If Oakeshott has misquoted Abbott, it'll become clear in tomorrow's Hansard.

If it's an accurate reflection of Abbott's thinking, he has thrown a hospital pass to his communications spokesperson, Malcolm Turnbull. The Register called Turnbull's office seeking comment, but things are busy in Canberra today.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott says Abbott's statement to Parliament made it clear that pits and ducts within five hundred metres of homes will never be touched.

And thus does knee-jerk opportunism take the potting clay of policy and of it, craft the very image of the village idiot.

With Parliament sitting, there was no way to contact Malcolm Turnbull to discover whether Mr Abbott has misrepresented coalition policy. The opposition spokesperson's media advisor was unable to provide guidance one way or the other on the accuracy of Oakeshott's remarks.

Folly leads policy

While politicians of all sides are trying to paint themselves as pure and someone else as evil, journalists too young to have been out of school when asbestos was banned are suffering recency delusions and headlining “asbestos exists” as if it is news, while Telstra has donned a "look: we're showing a duty of care" protection suit in the form of 200 site inspection specialists.

The simplistic asbestos debate - and particularly the eager "NBN asbestos" run by an ignorant media - is entirely a crock, because every Australian lives in a country in which asbestos was once in everything bar its breakfast cereals (only because James Hardie and CSR combined couldn't work out how to render the stuff edible).

There is no place in Australia without asbestos around somewhere: no suburb where houses aren't made of fibro, or which didn't have asbestos insulation pumped into their ceilings under pressure; no big civil works that didn't use it somewhere; no school science labs that didn't use asbestos to protect the kiddies' flasks atop the bunsen burners, and so on.

There is no question of “concealing” the existence of asbestos in the network: the federal opposition already knew it was there because it was told so by Telstra more than 12 years ago.

Nor is there any legitimate accusation that NBN Co is somehow responsible for the existence or handling of the asbestos. The suggestion is nothing more than politicking: NBN Co and legal asbestos have never co-existed in Australia. Moreover, NBN Co will never own the pits and ducts: its arrangement is to rent them.

The question of governmental responsibility is more nuanced.

There is certainly a strong argument that the Commonwealth of Australia bears a responsibility here: in the entire period of asbestos use, it was either the sole or majority shareholder of Telstra/Telecom, or prior to that, the asbestos was being installed by the Postmaster-General's Department.

However, it's a crock to try and put that responsibility to one party: in each of Telstra's many forms, it has existed under both Liberal and Labor governments.

Then we had Malcolm Turnbull, seizing the opportunity to tell the world that his fibre-to-the-node plan is safer on the ground that it involves less disturbance to the network, before being kneecapped by his leader's pronouncement.

Apart from proving the Leader of the Opposition's past statement he's no "tech-head", the statement is an eternal gift to the government. If that last five hundred metres has just become untouchable, then it's not just “farewell to the fibre”.

It also means no customer will ever have a connection repaired, and broken copper will never be replaced.

As Oakeshott told a press conference: "NBN equals asbestos equals stop the network - that's just crazy". ®

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