The Communications debate was mostly about broadband. Facts and figures were disputed back and forth, along with the inevitable accusations of cost blowouts and unrealistic budgets.
Senator Helen Coonan, the Howard government’s Communications Minister, waxed lyrical about the ‘lifeblood of the Australian economy’. Her government would deliver – is, she asserted, already delivering – speed of up to 12 megabits/second. With the use of the Wimax wireless network, an ‘upgrade path’ to 70 mbit/sec was in the works, which would reach the most remote regions of Australia. In the meantime, an expert task force would ‘continue to pursue a new fibre network’ in large regional centres and capital cities. Wimax was clearly the jewel in the broadband crown for the Coalition. Coonan stated repeatedly that it had delivered speeds of 12 mbit/second over a distance of 25km in the Cape York Peninsula.
Labor’s Stephen Conroy promised a 5 year build of a fibre-to-node network (delivering speeds 40 to homes and business up to 40 times faster than currently available, and 100 mbit/sec to educational institutions) that would be a progressive switch-on as each part of the network was completed. Prices would be set by an independent statutory authority, rather than the Minister in closed session with Telstra. All this would be accompanied by the already-announced computers-in-schools, along with internet kiosks and educational programs for seniors.
Policies rolled out, the two representatives got down to the business of tearing apart each other’s proposals.
Coonan was adamant that Labor could not deliver its package within five years. Her estimate was at least 2013. She also accused Labor of underfunding, of promising coverage that was not ‘scientifically possible’, and of having no idea of the complexities involved in rolling out national high-speed broadband.
Conroy also appealed to science. The Coalition’s claims of delivering 12 mbit/sec over 25 km, were he said, completely misleading, and even the provider in question (Internode) did not claim to be able to do that reliably. He muttered darkly about politicians doing deals behind closed doors that were neither transparent nor fair, and pointed out that the Coalition’s network was not only somewhere in the ether but had completely failed to account for capital cities and major regional centres.
(A little aside here … going over these claims in some detail, both have made telling points. Fibre-to-node is expensive, and the cost of building nodes in remote regions may well be prohibitive. This could eat into Labor’s promised 98% coverage. Wimax, on the other hand, is nowhere near as reliable as Coonan has claimed. Wireless broadband is fraught with problems – dead spots, interference from other signals, and reflection from buildings cancelling out incoming signals. Most problematically, wireless suffers from bandwidth dependence – with more users in an area, there is more demand on bandwidth and speeds drop accordingly, and if the allotted bandwidth is not reserved, wireless users may be sharing with other radio signals – leading, again, to lower speeds and potential interference. Internode will not guarantee a 12mbit/sec speed – it has said that speeds ‘up to’ 12 mbit/sec can be achieved.)
I’ve made it sound all very civilised. It wasn’t. The viewing audience was treated to the most disgusting display of bad manners yet exhibited in this campaign. The moderator, Sky’s David Speers, did his best, but even he was shouted down.
The major offender was Helen Coonan . She repeatedly interrupted both Conroy and Speers, raising her voice and stridently proclaiming ‘Steve doesn’t have a clue’, ‘Nonsense!’, ‘anyone who knows anything about broadband’ and laughing derisively any time Conroy spoke about Labor’s policies. When Conroy was asked by the moderator how much of Australia would have broadband by the end of the next term of politics, Coonan shouted, ‘NONE!’ She talked over Conroy and Speers, and was completely unwilling to allow either of them to speak if she felt her point needed to be repeated again.
Speers asked her several times to stop interrupting. He was unfailingly polite, although it was clear from his face that he was becoming exasperated. Coonan was unmoved.
So often when one party is being rude in an argument, the other finds themselves joining in just to be heard. This happened with Conroy – several times he visibly lost patience with Coonan’s tirade and interrupted her. Unlike Coonan, though, he displayed some self-control and reined himself in – and apologised to Speers.
The real moment of disgust, for this viewer, came when Speers attempted to move the conversation on from broadband to other communications issues such as media ownership. This came after a back-and-forth exchange of ‘yes you do! no we don’t!’ regarding the source of funding for broadband, and, frankly, was getting tiresome. Speers jumped in after Conroy finished his last statement and said, ‘We really need to move on from broadband,’ and started to ask his next question.
Coonan’s response? A cry of ‘That’s not fair!’, followed by two more minutes of diatribe about how Labor was uninformed, inexperienced, etc., raising her voice to completely drown out Speers.
This was the height of arrogance. All through these debates, the Coalition speakers have been characterised by a lack of respect for their opponents. They have tended to treat questions from the floor or from reporters as necessary evils that must be tolerated – or, in the case of Alexander Downer, laughed at and derided as absurd and irrelevant. They have had to be warned over and over again for going over time and for interrupting. They have made personal attacks on their opponents.
Coonan, however, was by far the worst. Second only to Abbott’s abuse of Nicola Roxon, her behaviour has shown the nastiest side of Coalition politics. In this, they are led by their Prime Minister and Peter Costello, whose press conference behaviour has become increasingly unpleasant.
They have shown themselves condescending to the media, abusive to their political opponents (listen to Peter Costello on Bob Brown, sometime) and dismissive of the Australian people’s real concerns about their everyday expenses and their workplaces. Whatever you think of their policies, it cannot be denied that their behaviour has been inexcusable.
Labor’s nose isn’t clean. Rudd stoops to it – his rhetoric is subtler, but there’s no doubt he’s calling Howard a fuddy-duddy. So does Gillard, and Conroy.
What I’ve noticed, though, in watching virtually non-stop coverage of press conferences, policy launches and debates, is this – while Labor might throw the occasional ball of mud, for the most part they’ve avoided attacking the Coalition representatives as people. If they attack Peter Costello, for example, they attack him on his avowed love of industrial relations reform. They don’t call him an incompetent liar. Nicola Roxon’s characterisation of Tony Abbott as rude and careless (when he failed to turn up for the Health debate until it was more than half over) was personal, and there’s no getting away from that.
In terms of playing the man, though, the Coalition takes the prize.
It’s a truism in politics that voters respond to the person as much as to the message. If that’s the case, then the Coalition are in trouble. The Australian public don’t, as a general, rule, like being treated as though they were idiots. There’s a certain sneaking respect for the clever putdown – but they don’t appreciate rudeness for rudeness’ sake.