Once again Malcolm Turnbull is appealing to Gough Whitlam for help.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal to broadband Australia is, he says, on the same scale as the wish-list of the great spendthrift, and we all know where that left Australia.

Well, we all know where it left Malcolm Turnbull; sailing through a free university course to a life of unimaginable opulence. You’d think he would be more grateful.

But in any case he is wrong. It’s true the Whitlam government had some grandiose plans, but few of them were ever implemented. Rex Connor’s grand scheme for a national pipeline grid came to grief as a result of the loans affair, national superannuation and compensation ended up in the too hard basket and attempts at serious overhaul of the federal-state log jam were strangled by the public service. The only really costly monument was Medibank, since reconstituted as Medicare, and even Turnbull isn’t game to attack that.

This is not to say Whitlam did not have secret ambitions: his last Treasurer Bill Hayden recalled that even as things were falling apart in 1975 Whitlam wanted to buy a huge shipping line. Horrified Treasury officials, still reeling under the impact of the loans affair, argued vigorously against the proposal. Whitlam exploded: “Jesus Christ you Treasury people lack imagination, you lack creativeness. What I want is ideas. What I want is the dramatic gesture like Disraeli buying the Suez Canal!” Hayden said that it was the only time he had seen the faces of the whole Treasury group fall apart: “You could hear the clunk as all their jaws simultaneously hit the floor. The louder thumps were from people like myself as we fell out of our chairs.”

Rudd’s project is not quite on that scale, but it is certainly on the large side of colossal; he is right in saying that it ranks with the Snowy River Scheme and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, both epic feats of nation building which have become national treasures. The Howard years produced nothing remotely comparable: the only major piece of infrastructure from the last decade was the Alice Springs to Darwin rail link and even that had its detractors.

Chris Corrigan, Howard’s loyal ally during the waterfront dispute, warned it would not produce a tick’s testicle of profit and he may have been right; the demand for rail freight between Adelaide and Darwin is just not there. But the line has proved to be a huge tourist drawcard and is providing a major boost, both economic and social, to the Northern Territory and its remote townships like Katherine and Tennant Creek.

As far as the record shows, Turnbull is yet to condemn the rail link as a megalomaniac failure; but he has passed this instant judgement on Rudd’s $43 billion broadband vision. It’s just not viable, he says, and no one will want to invest in it. He knows, because he was once involved in the industry.

Well, Turnbull may or may not be an expert in telecommunications, but he is rapidly becoming one on unsaleable products. At 18 percent in the polls he is getting perilously close to the point at which even his most dedicated supporters start thinking about cutting their losses. It’s true that John Howard hit the same depths and went on to greatness, but he had to wait six years and suffer under three other leaders before he did so. Such endurance requires both patience and persistence, two qualities not apparent in the Napoleonic Turnbull. He desperately needs a big win, and he needs it soon.

But with the great broadband announcement, Rudd has once gain stolen the political high ground. Turnbull’s problem is that despite his self-proclaimed expertise in the field, most of the current players seems to disagree with him. There are a few doubters, but most of the more important service providers are enthusiastically on side. Even Telstra, which deliberately took itself out of the game and has lost most as a result, says it is looking forward to participating in the new arrangements. And Liberal leaders in the far west and the remote south, not to mention quite a few Nationals led by Barnaby Joyce have also given their approval.

There may be a degree of self interest involved in these endorsements, but they remain politically potent. In the circumstances it will not be surprising if the general public who may not have the knowledge to judge the technical or economic niceties of the proposal, but can recognise a loser when they see one, are inclined to dismiss Turnbull’s critique as just another whingeing, carping piece of negativity.

The very word “Broadband” sounds good; it connotes expansiveness and generosity. And in the present context it makes Turnbull look very small and narrow.

This, of course, is not enough to explain Rudd’s astronomical popularity. But one reason it has endured so seamlessly may be that after a year and a half his government is yet to experience any serious accusation of rorting. But what about Joel Fitzgibbon’s trips to China, I hear you (or at least Malcolm Turnbull) cry. What about Craig Thompson’s credit card?

Certainly both have attracted a great deal of media attention, but the point is that neither has anything to do with Rudd’s government. Fitzgibbon’s trips were taken in opposition; since taking office he has been squeaky clean. And Thompson was not even a member of parliament at the times of the alleged misuse of his union credit card. Both incidents were at best embarrassing, but to the individuals concerned rather than to the administration as a whole. The government remains impeccable.

This may just be because its members are better at hiding stuff than their predecessors, but it is a gigantic political plus; John Howard must be looking on in envy. Nothing undermines support for a government faster than proven rorting, the snuffling of privileged snouts burrowing a bit too deeply into the public trough. Malcolm Turnbull, unable to make progress on the big issues, must be keeping his ears cocked — but so far in vain.

Rudd’s government remains the least tarnished in living memory. Perhaps the man really is a saint.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW