So it’s come to this. Who ends up governing Australia will depend on how three, maybe four independent MPs and The Greens view broadband. Early indications are that the independents will favour Labor’s publicly-funded, publicly-owned National Broadband Network (NBN) over the Coalition’s cheaper private-sector approach.
“The issue of broadband is very, very important for us,” Bob Katter, the member for Kennedy in far north Queensland, told ABC Radio’s AM yesterday. “And a privatized broadband? I mean, please. Don’t even talk about it. Privatised Telstra’s been absolutely disastrous for rural Australia.”
Katter sees broadband as an enabler for regional development, helping reduce what he sees as the population overload in Sydney and south-east Queensland.
In the northern NSW seat of New England, Tony Windsor was also talking up broadband and ripping into Telstra. “If you actually do a rough count of numbers, there’s probably more people supported the roll-out of the National Broadband Network than didn’t in terms of the way the nation voted,” he said on AM.
“The major issue is always health. Health, health, health and health,” he told ABC TV later in the day. “But the relationship between high-speed broadband in the future with e-health, the capacity for real-time involvement with specialists in operations etc in country hospitals, there’s a whole range of things that spin off the back of getting the broadband arrangements right. And country Australia deserves to have the best facilities that it can.”
Windsor’s main concern is equity of access. “That was promised under the Howard years on the sale of Telstra. Senator Barnaby Joyce said that he had guarantees and that it would be enshrined in legislation … that equity of access to broadband and telephone services for country Australians would be guaranteed. Nothing ever happened. So I don’t trust anybody in regard to that particular issue,” he said.
Windsor’s electorate of New England is centred on Armidale — which just happens to be one of the first five mainland locations to be getting NBN Co fibre. Would he trade that away?
Crikey understands that Robert Oakeshott, member for the adjoining seat of Lyne around Taree and Port Macquarie, also support’s the NBN. That makes three.
If Andrew Wilkie, former intelligence officer and twice Greens candidate now independent, wins Denison in Tasmania, it’ll make four. Yesterday he was stressing that he’ll choose to support a major party on the basis of public interest. “If I am elected, [I] would support whichever party I am confident that can deliver stable, competent, and most of all ethical government,” he said.
But the message on Wilkie’s website is clear: “The National Broadband Network will genuinely provide essential infrastructure for Australia’s future economic and social prosperity. It must be allowed to proceed.”
However as Crikey’s deadline loomed, Antony Green’s magic electoral predictotron was calling Denison “ALP Retain”.
The Greens have already said quite clearly that they support the NBN, although they’d prefer NBN Co to stay in public hands rather than eventually sold off. “If the Coalition doesn’t win Government, it will be because of the National Broadband Network,” Greens leader Senator Bob Brown said late on election night. “People want to live in the 21st century, for God’s sake.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been talking up the health benefits of the NBN and its importance for rural Australia. Coalition leader Tony Abbott didn’t want to pre-empt discussions with the independents, but says he intends to be “very pragmatic, but within the broad policy parameters which we discussed during the election”.
When analysed by land area, the two broadband policies might look similar. Most of those three rural electorates lie outside the NBN’s fibre, which goes to 93% of population. They’ll be served by 12 megabit per second (Mb/s) wireless, or by satellite to the final 3%, whichever policy prevails.
But analysed by population, the policies look very different.
Under Labor’s NBN, as the coverage maps show, many regional towns get gigabit per second fibre. In Kennedy, that includes Innisfail and Tully on the coast, through Charters Towers and all the way inland to Cloncurry and Mt Isa. In New England, everywhere from Quirindi and Werris Creek in the south, up through Tamworth and Armindale and all the way to Glen Innes and Tenterfield. In Lyne, it’s the entire sea-change coast of northern NSW. The maps are available now, and the fibre is starting to roll out.
Under the Coalition’s policy, everything awaits the formation of a National Broadband Commission and the compilation of a database. Some in-ground copper might be upgraded to enable ADSL2+, in theory delivering up to 20Mb/s but with a maximum range from the exchange of just a few kilometers. For everyone else, 12Mb/s wireless. That’s 80 times slower than NBN fibre. Shared with everyone on the base station. And delivered by a privately-owned telco that isn’t trusted any more.
Of course broadband isn’t the only issue at play. But given the stark difference between the two polices and long memories of perceived betrayal by the privatised Telstra, it’ll take a lot to persuade the independents to give up the NBN.