Recent articles on Abbott's refusal to fund urban rail projects have been telling:
- In Perth, Premier Barnett had been clever in branding Federal-State infrastructure initiatives as his alone, only to find that Abbott won't fund them and Gillard is unimpressed with his grandstanding. The possibility that they might not go ahead has brought him and his back to earth with a wet crunching sound;
- In south-eastern Queensland, the disappointment in this is palpable;
- In Sydney, we deep-sixed a government that used PR to paper over serious deficiencies in the rail network. The current government retains its credibility on the basis that it is doing something constructive about it. Much will be forgiven - dodgy casino work, national parks teeming with armed randoms - until some silly accountant decides to trim the rail upgrade budget;
- In Melbourne there is a proposal to build a tunnel under the city, or not build it, and oh aren't Richmond doing well this year?
Playing silly-buggers over rail projects means that road projects won't have the desired effect in improving traffic flow. It means that the disruption that happens with big construction projects will be resented even more than usual, and that the grandstanding involved with ribbon-cutting will also be resented.
Politically, it's pointless for the Coalition to promise this. It might have been true in the 1970s that Labor voters used public transport and Liberals private, but the uptake of public transport in recent years of expensive petrol and traffic snarls simply does not correlate to rusted-on federal voting intentions. It looks like they are natives to Planet Canberra and have no idea what life is like in the suburbs.
When the Japanese bombed northern Australia during World War II, it was often difficult for those co-ordinating the war effort to contact affected sites to work out what happened, what the damage was, what assistance was required. Visiting US officials were appalled and impressed upon Australian politicians the need for a national telephone network. In both Labor and the Coalition, some understood the importance of a national telephone network delivered through copper wires, and others didn't. It was started under the Chifley government and completed under Menzies, it is a bipartisan achievement. When Telstra was sold the national telephone network was sold with it, and the Gillard government bought it for NBN at a cost of $11b.
The first major failing of the Coalition's broadband plan is that it assumes copper will provide a sustainable solution, and overestimates the degree to which it can provide current services, never mind upgrading to 25 megabits per second. It's part of the Coalition's theme of insisting The Old Ways Are Best, but this tactic simply doesn't work when dealing with technology.
Turnbull's rapid blinking at the launch could have been a function of bright studio lights, but he is accustomed to the media glare and more comfortable in it than his leader. Some say rapid blinking can be an indication of mendacity, but I'm not going there. At one point Turnbull frowned and turned to look at Abbott as though he thought his leader had said something quite mad. With his stern face and Abbott's sticky-out ears, they reminded me of the Sesame Street characters Ernie and Bert.
I get that Turnbull has to demonstrate being a team player, and that people who rail at him for not seeing the technical inadequacies of his plan don't understand why he can't break from the team-imposed ashes-and-sackcloth routine at this point. By the end of September he will almost certainly be leader once again, and I should be more pleased at that prospect than I am: Turnbull cavils before Murdoch as much as Abbott does, and that is a real worry.
The key measurements of a broadband network are how much data can be downloaded - and uploaded, thanks BigBob - and how quickly. The NBN promises much in changing the way health and education is delivered, changing the way that people work in those sectors - and changing the way people work outside those sectors, too (including transport policy, but here we run the risk of blowing the tiny minds of Coalition policy-makers). None of that was present in that announcement.
The vision of the Coalition's policy was limited to delivery of high-speed, high-definition video - but compression technologies make that less important. The sorts of high-definition images required in medicine, and the need to have those delivered in real time, would have been a better example. This would have provided a tangible vision for rural Australians, as access to health (and education) is one of the key reasons for the depletion of country towns, about which the Nationals in particular profess to care.
This leads us to the second major failing of that plan, which is that a speed on 25 megabits per second - a faster download speed than most people have in 2013 - is Good Enough For The Likes Of You. Given that their policy in 2010 cost $6b and that this one costs $29.5b (yeah right), they have no right to complain about cost blowouts under Labor.
Cost blowouts on a project is largely a function of competent project management within clearly defined scope. Despite the yearnings of some of the nuttier Libs competent project managers are not on strike until Tony Abbott moves into the Lodge, and the Opposition frontbench contains no more program management or scope-setting skill than is present in the Gillard government.
It was unutterably stupid of the Libs to schedule their policy launch at Fox Studios, to speak of the possibilities of broadband in line with News Ltd product offerings - and to hand out Daily Telegraph articles in lieu of press releases. This will make it difficult for the Libs to refute accusations that their policy is designed to avert the threat that the NBN poses to Foxtel and other Murdoch outlets, and that their interests and those of the nation are subsumed to those of News Ltd. Journalists from broadcast media other than News Ltd were meant to be, and probably were, slack-jawed with wonder at the Foxtel broadband - but no government will ever build the sort of connectivity that the world's largest media organisation has built for itself.
The Liberals' fawning to News Ltd reinforces the message in this phoneshot of Abbott, Murdoch and Rinehart, taken at the recent IPA dinner:
When I was a Young Liberal, I paid fealty to senior members of the organisation and parliamentary party in a similar manner to that. At a function full of essentially conservative people, someone should have given up their seat so that Abbott could take his seat at a table with Murdoch and Rinehart like an equal. Whatever office this man might hold, he will never exercise real power. It's every bit as bad a look as Calwell and Whitlam in 1963. Another Liberal weapon from 2010 is blunted: that image trumps any Liberal who rabbits on about Gillard and 'faceless' union leaders.
People who work in ICT regard it as maximising human potential; all that's good and bad about what humans do can potentially be made faster, cheaper, better by ICT. People who go into journalism and stay there tend not to see that. Almost all broadcast media journalists report on ICT issues from two contradictory perspectives:
- ICT is overwhelming, e.g. BIG BROTHER READS YOUR BRAINWAVES! A FACEBOOK POST ON A DRUNKEN NIGHT OUT MIGHT STOP YOU GETTING A JOB YEARS FROM NOW! HI-TECH CHILD PORN RINGS! The square-eyed inactivity that was once sheeted home to television, etc.
- ICT is irrelevant: boys' toys, phone apps built by teenagers that solve insignificant problems, gadgets that cause great excitement among certain people but who can't clearly explain why they feel that way, etc.
Most of the Coalition's criticism of the NBN, with cost-benefit analyses and what have you, mainly involves failure to understand the possibilities of high-speed broadband, and what might flow from these. To give one example, policy-lightweight journalist Mark Simkin was ill-informed, and passed on that ill-information to ABC TV viewers, by claiming the NBN is a "rolled gold solution" (i.e., more than is required). Simkin usually dismisses policy detail with "the devil is in the detail", but by using the Coalition's frames to describe its own policy against that of the government Simkin shows that he lacks the ability to explain what is going on in politics, especially in actual what-it-means-to-you policy, and that his years of experience isn't helping him or us to that end.
Simkin is at his best when politics is at its most puerile. If you want a comparison of broadband policies go here, but if you want to know who farted during Question Time then Simkin is the go-to man. Whatever he puts out is no more than you deserve, ABC viewer. His employer, and organisations like it, employs journalists like him because, well, they have always employed people like him. This is not a sustainable business model, regardless of what broadband model we end up with.
Most of those whose job it is to provide information in a highly controlled way can't see a future for themselves in an age of uncontrolled information. Journalists who don't understand ICT issues but who are rattled by the disruption caused by broadband to their industry do, and can only, produce lousy reporting. The best analysis of the Coalition's broadband plan and the launch is not in the broadcast media; it is here, on a website that didn't exist a couple of months ago, or at Delimiter. On this issue, yet again, press-gallery "context" counts for fuck-all.
The cuts to urban rail projects and the cut-down broadband projects cast doubt over whether even the amounts cited in the policy will be spent. It shows people that no matter how hard you work, no matter whether you pay for private health insurance and private education for your kids, the Liberals really are offering less to the country's future than the incumbents, that will give us less to show for the prosperity coming from Asia at this point in history. Its role in creating that impression is why the Coalition broadband policy will cost it votes, not because Australia's notoriously hard-to-organise geeks have become some huge and strategic voting bloc.
Why not cut all government services? Why not restrict the age pension to those who make it past 100? Why not cut back the ADF until it would be flat out going nine rounds against Fiji? Imagine the tax cuts. Any fool can balance a limited budget, but governing Australia is another question altogether.
For three years now, Abbott and Joe Hockey and other Liberals have raised alarms about government spending and the state of the economy generally, and within that context have advocated cuts to spending. Kevin Rudd showed in 2007 that an opposition can win if it merely matches the government in areas that aren't central to their main message, as did Howard in 1996. Offering less is a real risk for oppositions, as Howard learnt in 1987.
The essential failure of John Howard is that his political instincts overrode his abstemious, low-risk rhetoric of the 1980s, warning against government bloat and centralisation, and welfare dependence. Strangely, he retained that reputation even after he led Australia's biggest-taxing, biggest-spending, highly centralised government which shovelled welfare at anyone who could whine at the right pitch. That failure must be resolved, not replicated, before by the Liberals get back into office.
Abbott is trying to get people to vote Liberal in the name of economic responsibility, while also retaining the belief that any spending cuts won't really affect them. This is a bit like selling lots of low-fat snack food rather than convincing people to buy fewer/no snack foods. It's a tricky balancing act, and others might think that Abbott can pull it off. The cuts to infrastructure (and the therefore suspect commitments on roads and to broadband that isn't broad enough) compounds all that no, no, no to create the negative impressions that stay with people and will only attract further evidence going forward: the Coalition is offering a lesser, scattershot version of the future compared to the incumbents.
Politically-savvy people study polling very carefully, and act on the basis of what they find in that data. For them, polling is a leading indicator. Yet for those who provide the data, polls are a lagging indicator of impressions formed up to the time they were asked. The idea that the Coalition are offering less and worse, not more and better, for Australia's future is taking root and polling will react accordingly. The most highly-respected poll, Newspoll, fluctuates erratically. The first paragraph of this story is, and will come to be seen, as risible as these statements. I struggle to take seriously those who are convinced that polls taken in April or earlier will reflect the result of the election to be held in September.
Even so, I've had my doubts. As a Young Liberal I was shattered when the Coalition lost the elections of 1987, 1990 and 1993. Am I kidding myself again when I say the Gillard government will be re-elected? Do I have some form of mental illness?
At the right time my Pandora feed threw out its version of this song: "Rudie can't fail", the