It might have looked ever so hasty — a Prime Minister desperate for a win and a demonstration that he can deliver his promised reforms rushing out a non-binding, in-principle, subject-to-lengthy-negotiations deal — but the Government can claim a legitimate win on NBN Co’s deal with Telstra.

For a sector that’s been beset by dud reform choices by both sides of politics since the 1980s, and lumbered with a structure that for a decade seemed almost designed to restrict competition and prevent the roll-out of high-speed broadband, this Government has been a whirlwind of reform. In less than three years it has made serious strides toward a national broadband network for more than 90% of the population and managed to sign Telstra up to the sort of structural separation that should have been imposed by the last Labor Government.

It’s even begun dragging our Universal Service Obligation regime into the 21st century reality that Telstra is no longer Government owned and a scapegoat for every regional telecoms service problem.

The deal — heavily caveated as it is — also short-circuits the remarkable obstructionism that Conroy has faced from the Senate over telecommunications reform. For all his many faults, Conroy has had to deal with a united front of recalcitrance from the Opposition and the minor parties on his telco reform bill, including the most hypocritical demands from the Coalition for documents it would never have handed over in a million years when in Government.

For months Conroy faced calls to release the McKinsey-KPMG implementation study on the NBN, amid early claims that the Government’s $43b price tag on the NBN didn’t stack up.  As it turned out, the McKinsey-KPMG report demonstrated that the overall cost, and the cost to taxpayers, was well within the Government’s initial estimate, even without the involvement of Telstra.

Now the only people opposed to the NBN and structural separation of Telstra are the Coalition and, possibly, Steve Fielding, who is doubtless looking for evidence high-speed broadband could lead to an increase in abortions even as we speak.

The Coalition’s antipathy toward structural separation of Telstra is the malign legacy of Nick Minchin, who has ensured the Liberal Party never gave fair consideration to undoing the errors of previous Governments — which would have meant undoing his own handiwork as the Finance Minister who finalised the privatisation of Telstra. Minchin’s departure gives the Liberals the chance to move on to a more economically-rational policy on structural separation. At the moment, they’re stuck in the same corner that Labor successfully painted them into in 2007, as the do-nothing party of broadband.

The Liberals say they have a broadband policy and we’ll see it “prior to the next election”. It’ll need to be a ripper to shift the impression that Labor at least understands where the ICT is heading, while the Opposition is stuck in the 20th century.

Peter Fray

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