There’s more to the NBN than YouTube

December 21, 2010

The government released the business case for its National Broadband Network yesterday. In a marathon media conference, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and NBNCo CEO Mike Quigley talked up the high points.

In a nutshell, it boils down to: the business plan was examined and found to be good. At the most conservative estimates of uptake, taxpayers would still see their investment (now set at $27.5 billion) returned with a 7% gain. Wholesale prices range from $24 per month for 12 Mbps to $150 per month for 1 Gbps. Pressed to give an idea of what a retail figure might be, Conroy favoured the questioner with a pitying look and pointed out that you don’t show your hand when you’re trying to build a competitive market.

So, for about $1.5 billion more than originally announced, the minimum expected outcome is to pay back the investment and then some. The wholesale prices are far below the hundreds of dollars that were bandied about by the Coalition during the year. The country will be thoroughly connected, and the regions won’t suffer if the demand is likely to be low. The NBN will be available in places that private companies would consider too remote (read: unprofitable) to connect.

Cue the storm of criticism. On the mild side of things was the Coalition’s predicted response of, ‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but where’s the cost-benefit analysis?’, which is a question deserving of an answer. You might be forgiven, however, for missing that in the hysteria that’s building now.

Perhaps sensing that the average viewer really didn’t care about the difference between a cost-benefit analysis and a business case, the Coalition reverted to more high-flown rhetoric. It’s a $50 billion white elephant! It’s monstrous! (And no one can say ‘monstrous’ in those terribly disappointed tones like Shadow Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull.)

Senator George Brandis hinted darkly that the government must be hiding something. The NBN business case was supposed to run to 400 pages, but only 160 pages were released.

There was this from the Sydney Morning Herald. The NBN will cost $24 wholesale per month? Why, that’s outrageous! We can get ADSL2+ already for about that. Why should we be forced to pay for something we don’t want?

In The Australian, there was this assertion: we ‘know’ that most people will only want 12 Mbps, so why should we pour all this public money into building something faster?

The Herald-Sun cried, ‘Won’t someone think of the networks?’ After all, it warned, the NBN will kill free-to-air and pay television, because everyone will watch the internet instead.

And my personal favourite: the questioner in yesterday’s media conference who asked, in tones of confected outrage, why the government was willing to spend all this money on the NBN while people were stuck in traffic in Western Sydney and waiting for operations in hospitals. Is it so important to allow people to upload videos of themselves at high speed? What about our schools?

That’s a lot of objections. Taken at face value, they paint a picture of a fatally-flawed plan that no one wants and that will drag the country into financial ruin.

Funny thing is, most of those criticism just don’t stand up under scrutiny.

Let’s start with the ‘$50 billion white elephant’. This figure has been a favourite of the Coalition for months now. In fact, they’ve done a reasonable job of muddying the waters with it. Unfortunately, it’s a mythical number. The amount of money allocated from public funds is $27.5 billion. That’s it. The remainder, adding up to approximately $43 billion, is to be sourced from private investment – so even the total amount is less than the Coalition claims will be ripped out of ‘taxpayers’ money’.

Where did the $50 billion figure come from, anyway? Well, it’s debate hyperbole. It’s a figure that the Coalition used during debates on the Telstra separation bill and in Question Time to scare-monger about the NBN. How do we know it will cost what the government says, they asked. Maybe it will be $50 billion … maybe 100. We just don’t know. Except we do.

Then there’s Brandis, with his deep suspicions that the government are hiding a terrible secret in the unreleased pages of the business case. Why can’t we see them? What have they got to hide? The answer, according to Conroy, is just a bit anti-climactic; they’re ‘hiding’ commercial-in-confidence data. This is absolutely no different to any other business case. It’s common sense; if you’re trying to build a project with commercial and competitive intentions, you don’t go telling the world your fall-back position or your planned tactics to get the best possible return. You just don’t.

How about the claim that people will be forced to sign up to the NBN? Frankly, I’m embarrassed for Fairfax. This story was put to bed months ago. To trot it out again now just looks like fear-mongering. It’s very clear; there is nothing in the NBN plan that will remove choice from people. Everyone is free to opt in or to stay with their current situation. The fibre will be laid; that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced at gunpoint to sign on. In this, it’s no different to a telephone line. New houses are automatically supplied with the cabling for a telephone line – but the tenants are in no way required to sign up to a Telco.

Then there’s the ‘no one wants this’ argument. The thinking runs something like this; your average household probably doesn’t ‘need’ stupidly high speed connections to the internet. We can upload our videos now, so why would we pay more for something that won’t get us anything?

This is a pretty sneaky one. It’s arguable that many households won’t want more than about 12 Mbps, at least at first. The problem is that not every user of the internet is one of these homes. If you’re running student accommodation, you’re going to want a service that doesn’t slow to a crawl the minute half of the residents log on. If you’re a small business moving data, you want something fast. If you’re big business, an educational institution or a department at any level of government, it’s a no-brainer.

(And just by the way, there are plenty of homes out there with several members all wanting to access the net at once – and if you’re stuck on ADSL2+, you know the frustration that comes with watching your bandwidth grind to a halt because just one more person needs to do their email.)

And that’s without even looking at potential future needs. Conroy pointed out over and over that the NBN was ‘future-proofed’. What that means is that yes, right now it might be a bit more than the family at 47 Generic Street need so that they can do their homework and download movies – but the applications for internet communication are growing all the time. In ten years’ time, we don’t want to be in the position of having to start all over again, just to meet the demand. It’s called forward planning.

The dire warnings that the NBN will kill television might sound familiar. That’s because they’re recycled, with very little change, from the same warnings that were sounded when pay television first came to Australia. If people have pay TV, they won’t watch free-to-air, and people won’t invest, and there will be no good programs, etc. etc. Well, in over 20 years, that hasn’t happened. There are more free-to-air channels than ever, showing first-run quality programs from both overseas and made here in Australia. New programs are still being made here.

And there’s no reason to think this won’t continue when the NBN is implemented. Internet TV – either live stream or download – already exists. It hasn’t killed television networks anywhere in the world yet, even in those places where high-speed broadband is in place. The idea that we can have one or the other, but not both, stems from a false assumption – that there’s a finite amount of viewing out there, and not everyone can have a share of the pie. In practice, the reverse seems to be true.

What Internet TV is likely to do is democratise television. Currently, there are a few community broadcasters in Australia that limp along, supported largely by donations. They often have very weak signals, and can’t be picked up by many televisions – and if you have pay TV, forget it. Your tuner won’t even acknowledge community broadcasters exist. Using the internet removes the need for massive capital outlay just to get set up – signal towers, just for a start, become irrelevant. The internet creates a space, and where a space is created, it tends to be filled very quickly. In this case, it will be filled by those who don’t have the profile or money to compete with the big television networks and production companies.

Will these new internet channels be good? Well, as with current television, I suspect we’ll see a fair amount of rubbish. But it’s hardly the End Of TV As We Know It.

And so we come to the ‘people-are-dying-in-gridlock-waiting-for-operations’ criticism. When asked this, Conroy responded with barely-contained anger – and not without cause. This argument, frankly, is rubbish.

For a start, many of the problems cited are the responsibility of the States. Last time anyone looked, the Federal government had not nationalised roads or hospitals. Schools are slightly different; they exist in a strange limbo where both governments get to look after them (and, all too often, neither do).

Then there’s the implication that, by building the NBN, the government is somehow taking away money that can be ‘better’ spent on things that people ‘really’ want and need. This is called rank populism. There’s no basis to it at all, but it sounds good. No government projects have been starved of funds to pay for the NBN.

Far nastier is the insinuation that the government just doesn’t care about the real needs of the battlers. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending our hard-earned money on a ‘video entertainment system’ (to quote George Brandis on AM Agenda this morning). Conroy’s response was scathing; he detailed a series of initiatives that were either already in place or to be implemented next year directed at schools and hospitals, and joint projects with the State governments on roads and infrastructure.

To drive the point home, Conroy listed a handful of the benefits of the NBN. For health: E-health, the ability for ageing people to stay at home and be properly monitored, and better communications between health services in metropolitan and remote areas. For education: online learning, access for those in remote areas to real-time learning environments, and whole-class access to virtual learning environments all over the world. He even had an answer to Western Sydney’s gridlock: high-speed tele-commuting.

All of that is a far cry from the accusation that the NBN is good for nothing but allowing people to take stupid videos with their mobile phones and upload them to YouTube or Facebook. (And do we detect a note of snobbery in those who deride the idea of people uploading their personal videos and displaying them to the world? Why, I believe we do.)

So what’s left? Well, it pretty much comes down to the objection that there is no cost-benefit analysis. This is a question that keeps coming up – and the answers seem a little wishy-washy. Either there’s a problem with commercial-in-confidence data, or it’s just not possible to adequately do such an analysis on future benefits as yet unknown. The Coalition, of course, is having a field day with the latter idea.

Mind you, when was the last time we saw a cost-benefit analysis for a defence material purchase? Or new medical imaging equipment for hospitals? Now, some might object that we don’t need one for things that are self-evidently ‘good’.

But we’re talking about a massive infrastructure upgrade that will touch almost every area of Australian life – from traffic lights to train switching, health monitoring to real-time consultation, online and virtual learning to tele-commuting. We’re talking about putting in place a system with capacity to expand in the future and potentially transform the way we live. Might we not then argue that very high-speed broadband, made available throughout Australia, is also self-evidently good?

When did we lose sight of the idea that not everything in life has to be about profit? When did we give up the idea that quality of life may be just as important – if not more – as how much money rolls in?

We’ve seen higher education suffer because, somewhere along the line we got the notion that universities should be places of profit rather than of learning. We’ve seen health suffer because we figure that it’s more important to have a good profit margin than extend affordable health care to everyone in the country.

Maybe we should learn from those disasters and try looking at the NBN as something that builds and enhances the nation, rather than a bunch of numbers on a balance sheet.

And if that means we see a few thousand more drunk videos turning up on YouTube – well, I’m sure the country will be able to withstand the onslaught.

After all, we’ve managed to cope with reality TV and talk shows …


November 18, 2010

I have two girls in primary school. Along with their science projects, their times tables and reading courses, they participate in a lifeskills program. Some of the subjects covered there include how to deal with bullying and conflict resolution. Most importantly, they are taught some common courtesies of human interaction – not interrupting when someone else is talking, not trying to shout people down, listening and responding well to what they are hearing.

It all hangs on one word – RESPECT.

This morning Senators Stephen Conroy (he much-maligned Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy) and Barnaby Joyce (Shadow for Regional Development, Local Government and Water) were guests on Sky News’ AM Agenda show. The plan was that reporter Ashleigh Gillon would first interview Conroy about the growing pressure on the government to release the NBN business plan, and later bring Joyce into the conversation.

Joyce had other ideas.

Conroy was in the middle of answering a question when Joyce decided to barge in. The studio microphones picked him up at first, but he could be clearly heard, raising his voice to drown out both Conroy and Gillon. For his part, Conroy seemed happy to sink to Joyce’s level, and in short order an orderly interview degenerated into a shouting match peppered with ridicule and stinging insults. Gillon tried repeatedly to regain some sense of order, pointing out that ‘Gentlemen, if you keep on talking at each other but not listening this isn’t going to work’.

Both men completely ignored her. Judging by the grins on their faces, they were both enjoying themselves far too much to worry about little things like courtesy, and the fact that they were live on a national TV program. It was a points-scoring match, nothing more, and frankly, a very poor example.

It’s called bullying – and Ashleigh Gillon was caught in the middle, doing her best to control the situation and being completely disrespected by both Conroy and Joyce.

Luckily my kids were already on their way to school, so I didn’t have to explain to them why they needed to respect each other when grown-ups – our elected representatives, no less – were ‘allowed’ to be as rude as they like. But they’ve seen Question Time before, and they’re well aware of the fact that our Parliament is, at times, a barely-controlled brawl.

And speaking of Question Time … maybe it was the long break between sessions, but so far this sitting we’ve seen MPs being warned, and – in the case of Christopher Pyne, Shadow for Education – actually ejected from the chamber. Speaker Harry Jenkins has delivered lecture after lecture reminding members that it is not simply a courtesy to listen to someone in silence, it is the rule – Standing Order 65(b). He might as well be reading from Alice in Wonderland, for all the notice people take of him. At times, even, members he’d just reprimanded jumped up to argue with him.

While all that was going on, both Opposition and government engaged in the same kind of ridiculous point-scoring we saw with Conroy and Joyce today. Gillard mocked Abbott, Pyne insulted Gillard, Hockey and Albanese traded verbal blows across the table, and Julie Bishop hissed

The Speaker has powers that people like Ashleigh Gillon don’t. He’s able to penalise MPs for this kind of behaviour, and while reluctant to apply those penalties, he’s shown he will do so given sufficient provocation. Being ejected from the chamber is no light thing – it shows up in Hansard, and it’s a black mark against the MP in question. It should be a form of public shaming, that someone is unable to control themselves long enough to take part in an orderly process. To look at Christopher Pyne and the Opposition yesterday, however, you could be forgiven it was all a big joke, and that Pyne was simply going to get a cup of tea.

And when these members return to the chamber? They go right back to the same verbal sparring, disrespect and rowdy behaviour.

Right now we’re waiting to see the vote on Greens MP Adam Bandt’s motion to get members to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage, as well as some votes on whether we’ll finally find out the NBN business case and get better funding for mental health. All pretty important stuff.

And what happened? Pyne jumped up with a motion that two other motions be voted on – one of which would push the same-sex marriage vote back even further – and spent nearly ten minutes sniping at the government, accusing them of deliberately leaving those motions off the agenda. Anthony Albanese, acting as Leader of the House, returned fire with mockery and more stupid points-scoring. Already it’s become so heated that the Speaker has had to rise in his place – which is a signal to the chamber that everyone better shut up right now – and both Pyne and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop have been reprimanded.

It’s a pretty clear signal that what’s important here is not the substance of the motions, but whether either of the major parties can get in a few barbs and make their opponents look stupid and/or corrupt.

None of this is clever. It might be mildly amusing at times (we do like a well-delivered put-down, after all), but it’s no way to run a country.

So we wait, until they’ve run out of points to score and finally get on with some actual governing. Meanwhile, it might well behoove the major parties to listen to the words of a song that my children learned as part of their lifeskills program – and maybe spend a bit of time thinking about the kind of example they set, and whether they are proud of how well they are conveying the message that what matters is not substance, but the ability to browbeat and insult your opponent into silence.

What’s in a name?

September 15, 2010

We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.

Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.

The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.

When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.

True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.

The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.

In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.

The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.

All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.

It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.

But, you know, it cuts both ways.

Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.

Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.

An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.

Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.

Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.

See what they did there?

Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).

As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.

The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.

The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.

So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.

In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)

In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.

And the winner is …

September 7, 2010

Not who you might think.

Yes, Labor was given the numbers to form government today. With the support of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, they now have the requisite minimum of 76 seats. )Bob Katter, earlier today, threw his support behind the Coalition, and made it clear that one of his reason for doing so was because Labor had ‘dumped’ Kevin Rudd.)

Gillard, predictably, was modest about Labor’s victory. Her speech revolved around the ‘new era’ of Parliament and her pledge to work for the good of the nation. She also extended a hand to the Coalition, inviting them to work in consensus with the government. The big surprise came when she confirmed that she has offered Rob Oakeshott a role as a Minister in her government, so that he could help bring about the promised Parliamentary reforms. (Oakeshott says he’s considering it.)

Before Tony Abbott could make his speech, we heard from Barnaby Joyce, who let fly with scathing criticism of the Independents. Oakeshott and Windsor had ‘betrayed’ their electorates, who clearly wanted a Coalition government, and they would pay for it at the next election. All in all, not a good look.

Abbott was gracious in defeat, but reminded everyone again that the Coalition had garnered more of the primary vote. He also didn’t waste any time in sledging Labor on their broadband policy, describing it as ‘school halls on steroids’ and ‘a minefield of waste and incompetence’. (I’m sure those are phrases we’ll hear repeated many times in the coming year.) This was remarkable, given that broadband had been a major factor in both Windsor and Oakeshott’s decision process. If Abbott was looking to build rapport with the Independents to aid the Coalition in their role as Opposition, this was definitely the wrong way to go about it.

Warren Truss, dismissive of what he called the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of Labor and the Greens, sounded the Red Scare warning. He didn’t quite say that the new government was full of Socialists, but the implication was clear. He also made much of the fact that none of Labor’s cabinet lived in rural or regional Australia. Apparently, we are supposed to conclude that this means Labor can’t understand regional needs.

On Thursday the Coalition party room meets for a leadership challenge. Both Abbott and Julie Bishop confirmed that they would be standing for the positions of leader and deputy leader respectively. Speculation is running wild as to whether Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey will challenge.

I said the winner isn’t who you think. The winner today isn’t Gillard. It isn’t Oakeshott, or Windsor.

We won. The people of Australia. There’s a lot of fear and anger flying around the airwaves right now. ‘We’re one by-election away from chaos’, ‘this government is too weak’, ‘we’ll be back to the polls inside six months’, ‘Abbott will just block everything’, ‘it’s a subversion of democracy’ – the sentiments are a more extreme version of what we’ve been seeing with increasing frequency as the days wore on. That fear is unwarranted – or at the very least, premature.

We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.

It’s all up to us now

August 20, 2010

With less than 24 hours until the polls open, and figures now divided over who will win, the campaign has taken an ugly turn.

Tony Abbott is in the middle of an announced 36 hour campaign bender. Dragging his media pack with him, he is on something of a whirlwind tour of fish markets, media and mining towns, stopping only for the occasional light shandy. Apparently, sleep is for the weak – although it’s an open question as to how many people will turn up for a 3am stump speech. His media pack are leaving a trail of coffee cups and empty V cans behind them, and last night discussed the possibility of pooling their resources and sleeping in shifts.

Julia Gillard, meanwhile, is actually taking time to catch the odd snooze, although she’s kicking off every day by blitzing breakfast radio and TV (including ABC’s Triple J radio – Abbott, following the example of his former leader John Howard, is missing in action with that demographic) before heading off on her own version of a royal progress at warp speed. Factories, shopping centres and schools figure highly on her itinerary.

The Greens are likewise heading out, along with the minor parties and Independents. It’s all systems go for these last precious hours.

Meanwhile the fingers are flying thick and fast to bang out editorial after editorial endorsing the candidates. Unsurprisingly, all News Limited papers (with the notable exception of the Adelaide Advertiser) have backed the Coalition to win, while Fairfax papers are lending qualified support to Labor. The language is strong: ‘negligence’, ‘debacle’, ‘We deserve much better’, and the wonderfully hyperbolic ‘shambolic and tragic’. And that’s without even looking at what Andrew Bolt or Piers Akerman have to say.

Cue Benny Hill chase music and sped-up montage. It’s all very silly, right?

Stop and listen to what’s being said, though. There’s no doubt this campaign has been really negative, but the rhetoric has ramped up to a degree where it borders on hysteria. Now, instead of being used as an unfavourable contrast, the dire warnings are forming the bulk of the speeches. Abbott’s a ‘risk’, says Gillard (over 10 times in her last 15 minute media conference). Gillard is ‘incompetent’, retorts Abbott (and his language is more varied, but boils down to about the same level of saturation). WorkChoices will be back. Our borders won’t be ‘safe’. We’ll be plunged into the digital Dark Ages. We’ll become a third world nation in terms of debt. The sky will fall. The world will end.

Et cetera, ad nauseam.

What’s going on? Take a long, deep breath in. Smell that? It’s desperation.

The candidates are running on empty. After a campaign that leapfrogged the country, debates, pressers, forums, photo opportunities, meet-and-greets (also known as grip-n-grins), they’ve got very little left in the tank. It’s hard to sell yourself when you’re exhausted – but it takes far less energy to condemn your opponent. The leaders also know that there will be saturation media coverage in this last day, and this is their last chance to scare us. The more they repeat ‘risk’, ‘incompetent’, ‘unsafe’, etc., the more chance there is of that sinking into our malleable minds and making us vote based on fear rather than give due consideration to policy. We get rapid-fire summaries of announced policy almost eclipsed by pronouncements of doom, and we start to forget what’s actually on offer.

So I propose we completely undermine that idea with a quick side-by-side recap of the bigger policies from the major parties.

National Broadband Network

Labor’s offering a fibre-to-the-home network with an optimum speed of 1 Gigabit per second to 93% of the country. The remaining 7% will receive wireless and satellite.

The Coalition has proposed a mainly wireless network, offering a peak speed of 12 Megabits per second, supplemented by satellite and fibre-to-the-backbone.

Paid Parental Leave

The Coalition is offering six month’s leave to new mothers, to be paid at their wage (or minimum wage, whichever is greater). A father choosing to stay at home will be paid at the mother’s wage. This will be paid for with a levy on businesses earning over $5 million per year, and will not start until 2013. Until then, they will offer the same scheme as Labor.

Labor’s proposal is for 18 weeks’ leave for primary carers, paid at the minimum wage. In addition, 2 weeks’ leave will be available for secondary carers. This leave is extended to cover fathers as primary carers, same-sex couples, and adoptive parents. This will be funded from the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

Climate Change

Labor has promised a citizens’ assembly to investigate a price on carbon, but has confirmed that a price on carbon does form part of their policy.

The Coalition has ruled out any form of carbon price.

Same-sex marriage

Both major parties have ruled out amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to legally marry.

Budgetary surplus

Both parties are promising the Budget will return to surplus by the end of the 2012-13 financial year. The Coalition is promising to deliver almost double the amount promised by Labor. Coalition costings are found here, while Labor’s can be found on their website.

Cuts to Services

The Coalition have announced they will cut services including: the computers in schools program, the Renewable Energy Future Fund, Trade Training Centres, a suite of climate change-related programs, the Australian Human Rights Framework and the APS Indigenous Employment Strategy, as well as reduce funding for Solar Homes and Communities, Green Car Innovation Fund and Green Building Fund, among others.

Labor has announced cuts to public service funding for the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Commission. It has also redirected funds from some renewable energy programs (including large solar power station projects) to fund the green farming and car trade-in policies.

Asylum Seekers

The Coalition will reopen the Nauru detention centre and install a boatphone to make decisions on turning back asylum seeker boats. They will also reintroduce mandatory Temporary Protection Visas and automatic rejection for anyone suspected of deliberately discarding identity papers.

Labor wants to build a regional processing centre in East Timor to be administered by the United Nations.

There’s more, of course, but these are the policies most likely to be subjected to scare-mongering in these last 24 hours.

You can check the respective parties’ websites: Labor, Liberal – which contains the Coalition policy and Greens. For a bit of contrast, try the minor parties as well: The Australian Sex Party, Australian Democrats (rumours of their death were greatly exaggerated – or at least delayed), Liberal Democratic Party and Family First.

To find Independent candidates in your local seat, check the Australian Electoral Commission for names.

Read the policies (you can find analyses of many of them in the archive here), check the costings, and try to keep those in mind when you hear – yet again – the slogans, the spin and the scare-mongering.

And then have a think about what the last three years have been like for you. And the three before that (since the Coalition team is largely unchanged from the Howard years, leaders notwithstanding). There are a number of posts in the archive here that go back to last election campaign. It can be enlightening to see just how much changed – and depressing to see just how much hasn’t.

That’s what matters in this campaign – not the spectre of WorkChoices, the Great Big New Tax boogeymen, changes of leadership on either side or questions of religion, gender or marital status.

Policy and history.

And when you go to the polls tomorrow, don’t – don’t, I beg you – cast an informal vote. If you can’t stand either of the major parties, put your vote where your heart is – and don’t let anyone tell you that it won’t count. Because you can bet that when the figures finally come in from the Electoral Commission, strategists and analysts from both sides will be going over the fine detail. Every vote that bleeds to the Greens or a minor party is a signal of discontent with the status quo.

And you’re not ‘sending a message’, regardless of what Mark Latham tells you. You’re just lumped in with every ballot paper that was incorrectly filled in, illegible or just plain doodled on. If you want to send a message, do it with a valid vote.

Every single vote matters.

I’ve called this blog ‘The Conscience Vote’ because I think that’s the most valuable thing any of us can do with our democratic rights. Vote our consciences – not by party loyalty, not by personality, not informally, and most of all, not mindlessly.

So go to it!

I’ll be tweeting and blogging throughout the day tomorrow. You can follow me here for exit polls, news reports, counting and the all-important announcements. And this blog will continue – getting elected doesn’t mean we can take our eyes off politicians, after all.

Right now, though, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea, toast some crumpets and take some time out to sit in the sun (what little there is of it in Melbourne right now).

I’ve got some thinking to do.

Ozvote ’07 – Communications debate.

November 19, 2007

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.

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