“There’s another announcement coming,” Stephen Conroy casually noted while answering questions with the Prime Minister and Minister Wong about the $11 billion NBN-Telstra deal. It was coming quicker than expected, because Conroy nipped from the Prime Minister’s courtyard around the corner to the Blue Room, where ministerial media conferences are held, and joined Wayne Swan to announce the NBN-Optus deal, an $800 million plan to migrate Optus fixed-line customers to the NBN.

As Conroy noted at the prime ministerial presser, this makes the issue of NBN take-up — one of the many confected issues hurled by opponents at the NBN — entirely moot. People will be swapped from the decaying, increasingly costly copper network (despite of the magical broadband properties some economists appear to think it has) to fibre, or they can choose to go mobile.

The pieces thus continue to fall into place for the NBN. Telstra’s shareholders will vote in October on the deal, first flagged almost exactly a year ago, the Sunday before Kevin Rudd’s knifing; the ACCC also needs to tick off on Telstra’s structural separation plan and its migration plan for switching customers over to fibre. Optus needs its migration plan ticked off by the ACCC as well.

Labor has also finalised its reforms to the structure of Universal Service Obligations, ending the extended twilight period in which a private company, Telstra, was stuck with the sorts of obligations expected of the government-controlled entity it once was.

But as each piece falls into place, the opposition’s dilemma on the NBN worsens. And the dilemma was fully on display in Malcolm Turnbull’s interview with the ABC’s Naomi Woodley this morning. Having been charged with demolishing the NBN by his leader, Turnbull’s language was anything but that of a wrecking crew. “There’s no question of anything being destroyed or ripped up or terminated or anything like that,” Turnbull insisted, having said the Coalition wouldn’t “unwind in the sense of go back to ground zero.”

Turnbull has failed to shine as communications shadow, but mostly for reasons outside his control. He inherited a dud broadband policy from Tony Smith, one that no one outside the Coalition is impressed with, and Tony Abbott — presumably deliberately — set his potential rival a high hurdle in instructing him to demolish the NBN. It’s a win-win for Abbott — if Turnbull indeed succeeded, the opposition would have achieved an impressive victory; if not, Turnbull would be undermined. After an initial flurry on the need for a cost-benefit analysis, all Turnbull has been able to do is question Mike Quigley’s past at Alcatel. Quite what the Coalition’s broadband policy now is remains a mystery. Turnbull’s one real win has been internal — removing the dead hand of Telstra-obsessed Nick Minchin from Liberal policy.

Turnbull, the finest mind in Parliament and one of its most articulate figures, is also up against one of Labor’s best in Stephen Conroy. For all the factional Dalek stuff and bizarre beliefs about net filtering, Conroy is like the Terminator, albeit perhaps of more slender build. He just keeps coming, unfazed by any opposition, and he knows his brief down to a scary level of detail. He’s the key reason why the NBN now has almost unstoppable momentum behind it and the Coalition is talking about adjusting to life with a fibre network.

On the worst day of the year for the Gillard government, and at a time when federal Labor’s future looks bleak, it’s a small comfort that, as big reforms fall into place, the political landscape will get more difficult for the Liberals, faced with the challenge of having to explain how they’ll give full effect to Abbott’s program of stopping everything Labor has done.

It’s also an echo of the early version of the Rudd government that had confidence in itself and its reform program. It was early on the morning of April 7, 2009, when Conroy stood with Rudd and Lindsay Tanner and Rudd announced the government was junking the tender process for its original NBN proposal, which had elicited a contemptuous response from Sol Trujillo’s Telstra and demands for a regulated monopoly from its competitors. Labor was doing what the Howard government had failed to do — stand up to the 800-pound gorilla in Telstra. Telstra’s surrender was unexpectedly rapid, particularly when the government later went further and decided to fix the mess the Hawke and Howard governments had made of telecommunications reform by imposing structural separation on Telstra.

For all its ineptitude in other areas, Labor just keeps going and going on communications reform and is going to achieve far more than any predecessor, despite the Coalition trying to block it every step of the way.

Peter Fray

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