So an artificial dispute, over a bill everyone agrees with, in relation to a document that was going to be released anyway, appears to have been resolved with another document that says almost nothing. Apt, really.
You have to read the NBN Business Case summary — hastily pulled together, complete with typos — to see how little it says. It lacks the detail of even the “executive summary” (I’ve never understood why they were called “executive”) now compulsory for public documents. It advances our understanding of how NBNCo will build and operate the network very little beyond the highly detailed McKinsey implementation study.
Still, it’s evidently good enough for Nick Xenophon to withdraw his objections to the bill to split Telstra. The bill be debated today but not be voted on until tomorrow, in an extended Senate sitting.
The only numbers of real significance in the summary are the changed costings: the network will cost a total $35.7 billion to build, rather than the $37.4 billion under the McKinsey study, and NBNCo will spend $13.8 billion in operational expenditure out to June 2020 to get access to Telstra’s infrastructure and customers. That operational expenditure will, according to NBNCo, be more than offset by the increased revenue NBNCo will obtain from Telstra customers migrating to the network — though it won’t say by how much.
Malcolm Turnbull and other Coalition figures were today wrongly adding together the capital expenditure of $35.7 billion and the Telstra-related operational expenditure of $13.8 billion and claiming the network would cost $49 billion. The calculation only makes sense if you then subtract the additional revenue the Telstra expenditure generates, which will be more than $13.8 billion.
The focus on the NBN obscures the fact that the passage of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill will be a monumental achievement in telecommunications policy. The vast policy mistake caused by the “second rate decision” when Kim Beazley, keen to look after Telecom unions, defeated Paul Keating’s proposal to establish a competitor for Telecom, and continued when John Howard, John Fahey and Nick Minchin, keen to look after “mum and dad shareholders”, privatised an integrated monster, will now be corrected.
Moreover, Telstra itself supports the bill, a vast change from the days when overpaid Americans thought picking one fight after another with regulators and governments was the path to corporate success. It’s 20 years late, but this government will finally have a major reform to speak of.
Typically for this government, of course, it has made sure we’re not talking about that, but about the NBN. It seems to have served everyone’s interests to turn the bill into a totemic struggle over the NBN, not least Labor, for whom passage of the Bill would afford the first positive news it has been able to produce for a long while and avoid the impression it is limping into the summer break, an impression strengthened by the now-constant talk about this government’s agenda and priorities.
The Prime Minister spoke sense to caucus’s special meeting yesterday afternoon when she laid out the timetable for achieving significant reforms such as the NBN rollout, health reform, a carbon price and a mining tax. You can talk all you like about reform but voters will only take note when you deliver them. It was ultimately Kevin Rudd’s failure to deliver reform that wrecked his support among voters, quite apart from his notorious communication problems. And in that regard, his worst failure came not from a hostile senate or external opposition but from within.