Politics wins, we lose … again!

The bad weather forecast for Brisbane today has turned out to be a very brief thunderstorm over the central city. Nothing to get too excited about yet. It is, however, a reminder that we are in Queensland’s official wet season and have six more weeks of it coming if the weather runs true to form. Worse if this season holds more surprises in store for us.

As predicted by some of my colleagues, today the Federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, seized on the $36 billion national broadband network project (NBN) as a source of funding for reconstruction, effectively seeking to shelve that network for the foreseeable future as an unaffordfable luxury under the circumstances.

My views on the NBN are spelled out pretty trenchantly elsewhere, but not beholden to Tony Abbott’s automatic opposition to anything proposed by the Labor Government. To summarize, I am uncomfortable with a government that has a track record of trying to ramrod the most comprehensive censorship regime in Australian history through aParliament also trying to control all internet access points. Parliamentary debate on the Rudd-Conroy-Gillard censorship agenda has revealed it to be sinister in its secretiveness, draconian in scope, and opaque in oversight and accountability for shadowy bureaucrats possibly answerable to no one. This gives me a deeply uneasy feeling that is in no way ameliorated by a recent move to exempt the NBN Co quango from freedom of information legislation.

However, I imagine that the flood reconstruction effort actually offers an opportunity to change the emphasis of the NBN to much more closely align it with community benefit priorities. If a component of the road and rail reconstruction effort were to be at least laying the groundwork for a fibre network in rural areas, the available money would be more wisely spent in regional Queensland than trying to introduce state competition in urban areas, where private providers are already engaged in price cutting, albeit in a belated effort to shut out any new players after years of very comfortable oligopoly profiteering.

It makes more sense for state efforts to be directed in areas where there is a clear lack of competition — country Australia — where customer numbers are too slight to tempt private operators, quite probably because the returns on investment for necessary infrastructure are just not there, profiteering or not.

If for every kilometre of road and rail network rebuilt, we could work in a kilometre of fibre, the end result would be truly worth the effort, bringing a real chance at broadband to rural communities, keeping in mind that private providers have been getting away with calling a maximum 3Mbps (frequently significantly less) ADSL2+ service ‘broadband’ rather than just the now somewhat antiquated precursor to a true broadband 300Mbps fibre-optic capability.

Shamefully no one in government (or the news media) appears tech savvy enough to realise that Telstra and Optus have gotten away with calling connection speeds that are lame in comparison with those in other advanced economies broadband just because they employ bi-directional information flows. The situation has not been helped by the embarrassingly obvious intellectual limitations of the Minister for the NBN, Stephen Conroy, which has seen this reality realignment blindly accepted as truth by the Commonwealth.

However, the entire game plan could be re-designed if the flood recovery effort were used to lay the groundwork for a national infrastructure truly worthy of being called broadband. Alas, the NBN Co bureaucracy and gravy train are already in place. I fear the entire plan will be ditched at an already considerable cost, salvaging nothing except extraordinary salaries for senior execs and bureaucrats who will have delivered nothing at all. And so I predict that politics wins the day, as it does every time, delivering nothing but the most mediocre compromise that it’s possible to find.