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Sunday, 09 May 2010 23:07

The Nats are crazy and wrong on the NBN


A year is forever in politics. So six months must be a very long time indeed. In that time the Coalition's fortunes have shifted dramatically - from a facing a humiliating rout at the next election to being in the hunt.

They don't have a snowflake's of rolling Labor at the federal election later this year. But they are certainly making themselves look competitive. And they will be.

Unity is more than half battle for an opposition. And right now, no-one wants to puncture the Abbott-inspired Coalition mojo by rocking the boat.

Six months ago, as the Nationals prepared to die in a ditch in vehement opposition to the Emissions Trading Scheme in the last days of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership of the Liberal Party, the party of regional Australia ran a real risk of splitting the Coalition permanently.

Things got so bad over the ETS that the Nationals toned down other areas of policy difference. Namely on the telecommunications reform legislation.

The Nats were prepared to go along with the then communications shadow Nick Minchin's deep opposition to bill - which contains, in addition to consumer and competition reform, provisions that would help force the functional separation of Telstra.

The telecommunications reform bill is listed for debate in the Senate next Wednesday. It contains fundamental structural changes to the way telecommunications industry works in Australia.

It is widely accepted that the changes will improve competition, ultimately leading to better services at lower prices for consumers, with all the productivity benefits that scenario brings with it.

The reforms also provide the new structural framework for an open access wholesale network - the NBN - to operate.

The Nationals understand this stuff all too well. The fact that its Page Research put forward its own proposal for a national optical fibre network in 2005 is well documented.

The Nationals also understand very well the impact that Telstra's dominance has had in regional Australia. Poor competition has meant higher prices and under-servicing. The Nationals also understand very well indeed how the vertical integration of Telstra has undermined the ability of potential market entrants to compete.

The Nationals understand very well that the market has failed large tracts of Australia - right in its voter heartland. And they know very well that for all the pressure they piled on, the previous Government was never going to do more than play catch-up and offer stop-gap solutions.

Given that the Nationals well understand and have essentially supported the core of these reforms, and given the bush will benefit enormously from the reforms - and the NBN - it is all the more astonishing that the party will vote against it.

If fact, the Nationals are not simply voting against these reforms - they are actually arguing the case against the reforms and against the NBN, suggesting they are bad for regional Australia.

These are strange days indeed.

Warren Truss last week said Government could not be trusted to implement the NBN. First they promised 12Mbps to 98 per cent of the population, then they changed that to 100Mbps for 90 per cent and 12Mbps for the rest, he said. And now they have changed their minds again, saying that 93 per cent of Australians will get 100Mbps fibre and the rest would get 20Mbps.

Mr Truss suggested these changes were evidence of a Government that didn't know what they were doing, and that regional Australians were somehow the losers.

That logic is so strange its has wandered into weird.

Last year, when this telecommunications reform bill was put to the Senate (but wasn't voted on), Nationals Senators were planning to vote against it.

Nick Minchin's Liberals didn't the threats in the bill designed to force Telstra to functionally separate in preparation for the new regulatory environment. Senator Minchin compared the legislation to a gun to the head of Telstra as it negotiated with the NBN Company.

At the time, the Nationals senators seemed to rationalise their planned 'no' vote like this: They agreed that Telstra should separate its wholesale and retail businesses to improve competition, and they agreed that the legislation was a gun to Telstra head (and they were generally ok with that.)

But with the ETS shit-storm at Force 10, there was simply no way any of the Nationals senators could consider crossing the floor on telco. Nothing less than the survival of the Coalition agreement was at stake.

And besides, at least one Senator said, even if the bill is rejected, it's still a gun to the head of Telstra "because everyone knows we'll vote for it when its presented again next year."

And soon after that, Malcolm Turnbull was rolled; Tony Abbott led the resurgence in Coalition fortunes, and no-one wants to the ride to end. Don't rock the boat, don't step out of line.

And that means the Nationals have thrown its telecommunications convictions overboard. And that will hurt regional Australia.

So the deciding vote on the biggest changes to telecommunications policy in a generation looks almost certain to fall to Family First Senator Steve Fielding. That's if the Liberal and Nationals opposition allows the bill to get to a vote, and dispenses with its stalling, filibustering tactics.

It is hard to know what more the Nationals would have to be offered to make this telecommunications plan acceptable to them and their regional constituents. The Conroy plans already offers orders of magnitude more than its own fibre plan from Page Research (which was dismissed by the Howard Cabinet as just plain barmey) and 20 times the speed of the bandaid wireless solution.

There are hard choices that have to get made in politics for many reasons - for the greater good, to live to fight another day, to make a start, to edge towards a goal ... whatever it is.

But on this, the Nationals are letting go of an issue they have been in front of for years. And they are wrong to do it.


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