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Thursday, 16 September 2010 13:42

NBN: Players ready in high-stakes game


With the announcement this week of the Gillard Cabinet and Tony Abbott's shadow ministry, we now know who the players are in what will be a hard-fought battle over the National Broadband Network implementation. But we have still to learn how the game will be played.

The reappointment of Stephen Conroy was obviously good news for the sector and has been welcomed by industry chiefs. It allows for continuity of the Government agenda at a time when much is up in the air.

And Prime Minister Julia Gillard also offered some welcome signs by promoting Senator Conroy, giving him additional responsibilities as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity.

It signals that Government is looking beyond the network roll-out - the mere construction phase - at what the tangible benefits to the economy that can be taken from improved and ubiquitous broadband.

There are sections of the community unhappy with the Senator Conroy reappointment on the basis of the internet filter policy. The position is difficult to understand, given the filter is Government policy and would be pursued by a new Ministerial appointment.

Good news too that that the Greens have reappointed Scott Ludlam as its communications spokesman. With a term in the position under his belt, Senator Ludlam knows the issues in the sector as well as anyone in the Parliament and has proved an excellent advocate (not least in campaigning against the proposed mandatory internet filter.)

Senator Ludlam declared the Greens in-principle support for the National Broadband Network early in the election campaign, which meant also supporting the reform legislation that will see the structural separation of Telstra (and ultimately the sign off on the Heads of Agreement between Telstra, NBN Company and Government.)

The Greens agreement with Labor on supply doesn't necessarily amount to much in terms of communications policy. Senator Ludlam has amendments to the legislation he wants to introduce around improved consumer protections and the public ownership of the NBN Company.

He wrote a second reading speech outlining the Greens proposed amendments eight months ago - and is still waiting to read it, with the legislation having been stalled in the Senate since last year.

Tony Abbott's appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as communications spokesman is also welcome and should raise the level of debate on the National Broadband Network.

But we have yet to see how Mr Turnbull plans to play the game - whether he will block at every opportunity, or whether he will seek genuine improvement. At first glance, and certainly according to Tony Abbott's instructions that he "demolish" the NBN, Mr Turnbull may indeed bring the role of 'wrecker' to the shadow portfolio as Senator Ludlam fears.

Mr Turnbull's early comments about the access regime having worked fine since 1997 must also fill Telstra competitors with dread.

We will wait and see whether the Coalition attempts to simply continue to block the reform bill. At first glance, it would seem unlikely that the Opposition will cooperate with anything NBN-related until more details about its cost to taxpayers - if not a full cost benefit analysis - are made public.

Regardless, it will be a fascinating few months. It's a shame, perhaps, that all the protagonists are not in the same chamber. But never mind, Mr Turnbull seems just as adept at debating in the public arena.

The Gillard Ministry chart is interesting reading for its "other chamber" representation.

If Mr Turnbull goes on the attack in the House, it will be the Government's Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese who will be answering questions on Senator Conroy's behalf.

On Government IT matters, Treasurer Wayne Swan will take questions on behalf of new Finance Minister Penny Wong.

Finally, Senator Conroy seems to have been given an "other chamber" promotion of sorts as well. In the last Parliament he would answer Senate questions related to Lindsay Tanner's portfolio (Mr Tanner retired from politics at the election.)

In the new Parliament, Senator Conroy will take Senate questions related to the new Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd's portfolio.


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