Australia votes and Vulture South picks the flesh off tech policy

The juiciest piece of all is the heart and whoever wins, Australia's will be broken

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When Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull led the Australian Republican movement, which found itself on the wrong end of the 1999 plebiscite on converting Australia from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, he labelled then-Prime Minister and staunch monarchist John Howard the man who “broke this nation's heart.”

Turnbull was heartbroken because becoming a republic was offered as an important symbolic advance for Australia, a way the nation could tell itself and the world it had evolved into something new, significant and wholly independent. Becoming a republic would create a foundation on which to re-imagine the nation. Losing the chance to build that foundation meant the end of the affair.

Fast-forward 15 years and Turnbull stands on the threshold breaking the heart of those who advocate a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) build for Australia's national broadband network (NBN).

Like the republican cause, the FTTP NBN was not something Australia absolutely needed. It was, however, a profound symbolic step towards a vision of Australia as modern nation.

An FTTP NBN looked like a policy Turnbull would applaud. As a former technology investor, it was assumed his soul had been infused with big picture optimism.

But in 2010 Turnbull was far from optimistic. Disillusioned after being rolled as opposition leader and without a senior role, he nearly quit politics before being talked into remaining in Parliament.

The communications portfolio, along with instructions to “demolish the NBN”, were his reward.

Whatever lies in Turnbull's soul (and it is tempting indeed to wonder if it is tortured by the policy he advances), he found a way to follow the instruction with a relentless campaign questioning NBN Co planning and implementation processes, and government oversight of same.

The government's decision to eliminate competition by ruling out HFC networks as a broadband medium gave him the chance to land telling blows. Once NBN Co's negotiations with Telstra became a marathon, those blows established a hurtful pattern of delay and overreach. Perception and reality merged.

Turnbull's eventual alternative NBN policy was built on the premise that anything enabling the NBN to be built for for less money and in less time is worth it, but that video downloads are the only application worth contemplating.

He therefore found himself offering all manner of ifs, buts and maybes on technical matters to justify the use of copper as the last mile connection. Those justifications were handed out sparingly to those who unimpressed by the policy: Turnbull has not responded to any inquires from Vulture South for months and has publicly criticised other journalists who have found fault with his thinking.

Turnbull's opponent, nominally Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has mere weeks of experience in his portfolio. He's hardly put a foot wrong, which is easy to do if you hardly open your mouth. When he has spoken on the NBN, it has been to recite the same tired messages the government has advanced as justification for the project, namely that it will transform health and education, greatly enhance productivity, uses technology with the best current and likely best long term performance and is therefore both visionary and responsible, no matter the cost or construction time.

Those arguments were shaped by Albanese's predecessor in the portfolio, Senator Stephen Conroy, who Vulture South suspects went straight for an absolute monarch's robes when he played dress-ups as a child. Conroy's remarks about being able to compel telcos to to wear red underpants on their heads during bidding processes and his botched media reforms diminished him. His pursuit of an internet filter did likewise, eroding his ability to advocate strongly for an FTTP NBN.

It wasn't always so. When Conroy and Kevin Rudd announced their FTTP NBN plan in 2008 it was symbolic of a new government changing the nation in its modern image. Both men proved far better at the big picture than the fine print, creating a narrative vacuum into which criticism oozed, robbing the project of its symbolic importance.

That Conroy became so ineffective slowly broke the hearts of those who support a FTTP NBN, because having steered it through Cabinet Conroy proved utterly unable to sell it to the wider public.

Conroy was far from alone in that failing. The Rudd and Gillard governments oversaw prosperous and peaceful times without ever managing to deliver the “relaxed and comfortable” Australia that John Howard made his goal.

Doing so was made hard by governance failures, of the nation and of the ruling Labor party. It is disturbing that those charged with administering the government's home insulation scheme designed it so poorly, and more so that the department asked to do so had little experience administering such programs but was nonetheless thrust into, and accepted, the role.

Once the government started to feed on itself, rebutting the notion it had failed at important tasks and would do so again in any undertaking became impossible.

Which brings us to this Saturday's election for the Commonwealth Parliament. The opposition offers Australia a pragmatic NBN plan that inspires no-one but reassures many, plus a recently-released document advocating a refresh for the role of IT in government addressing procurement and service delivery.

The government is relying on an inspirational NBN plan that struggles to reassure anyone it will be delivered on time or on budget. It has abandoned talk of IT's role in government other than the tired insistence the NBN will make things better.

Vulture South has no suggestion as to how this state of affairs might or should influence your vote, but feels the Liberal National Party NBN plan will break the hearts of those who feel the symbolism of an FTTP build bespeaks serious nation-building efforts. The Labor Party will probably break the hearts of those who feel the NBN is needed urgently, because it shows little sign of being able to get NBN Co to stop changing the criteria for success and has largely abandoned debate about the role of technology other than to insist it's all good.

Those who've been unlucky in love can often find themselves avoiding future entanglements in the hope they'll also avoid future pain.

That's a path we find hard to recommend; it's also a path we find hard not to recommend. Vulture South therefore recommends that this Saturday you vote with your heart, not to spare it. ®

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