Whenever news about the NBN unfolds, I am reminded of a 1990 film called The Bonfire of the Vanities. This comparison, in the case you were one of the few who witnessed Tom Hanks’ failure to play a corruptible man, has little to do with its plot but everything to do with its production process. Everyone was waiting for this newsy blockbuster, based on a Tom Wolfe novel — it looked so good on paper! Then as news of its Cleopatra-sized budget blowout began to leak, and as personnel compromises were made for peculiar reasons, we began to expect very little.

Very little was what we got. Investors lost money and the book’s difficult social themes, only just upheld by the skill of Wolfe, were swallowed inside a bloated script. An American story that had, in written form, served people with its critical look at both race and the finance sector was hollowed out into a festival of nothing. Not even Hollywood’s best taglines — “An outrageous story of greed, lust and vanity” — could save this craven dog.

The NBN, good and true nation-building in its ALP policy document form, has been similarly diminished. What was intended not merely to deliver “faster” speeds but broader resolution to a range of business and social services for all Australians has been fatally downgraded in a political fight. Everybody with a casual interest in the scheme, and this surely includes Malcolm Turnbull, knows that fibre as a backbone to all telecommunications makes cost-saving sense over time. Copper is narrow and short-lived. Fibre is democratising and durable. To say, as so many Nationals and Liberals have, that the now-abandoned vision is a case of delivering fibre-to-the-nerd and other selfish people who only want to watch Netflix is such malarkey. Which we will know in 10 years when Australians in the regions die of melanomas they could have had diagnosed over high-res video links, or when we again see the excavation of copper at the end of its unremarkable life.

[Essential: it’s agreed — NBN officially a dud]

Brian de Palma’s Bonfire was small and cost US taxpayers only a little in Hollywood subsidy. The NBN is enormous. And, it’s ours — or it should be. NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow, a person paid $3.6 million per year, doesn’t seem to think about it that way. As I saw him talk on Monday to News 24 and other outlets, with the thrilling announcement that his website, not his network, was now functioning well, he kept referring to us as “end users”.

I get that this is IT speak and a perfectly acceptable way to characterise the use of a product or service down at the back end. When it is used in public conversation, however, I am led to suppose that some of Bill’s many annual dollars could be better spent on the formation of a tagline.

We have become very used in Australia to corporate governance of our public institutions. We accept the obfuscation of private enterprise to demean people on Manus and Nauru. We do not blink when our prisons are privatised, our Aboriginal citizens denied basic freedom and basic wage by an opaque network of profiteers or our CSIRO, an organisation that has more than proved its worth as an “innovator”, is crushed by market-friendly Silicon Valley ideology. In this age where Western politicians seem prepared to listen to the unschooled ravings of a Bill Gates or an Elon Musk as guides to future macro-economic policy—never thinking that taxing these guys might itself be a quick economic fix—we cop a man with an obscenity for a salary calling us “end users”.

I wonder for how long, though. As our median wage continues its forty-year descent and an entire generation of digital natives is shut out of the housing market and good broadband, overcompensated people like Morrow must learn, at least, to speak a different language. He can talk, as he has this week, about the exciting, tailored NBN options we will be able to buy for our “lifestyles” for about another three years, I reckon. Eventually, the crap about consumer “choice” and “competition” will be meaningless. People will just want internet that doesn’t suck to distract themselves from the fact that they’ll never have a permanent home or job, and at that point, they’ll remember that they are more than an “end user” or a “consumer”, but a goddamn owner of the NBN.

[How can we fix the NBN?]

The NBN is ours. It doesn’t belong to Turnbull, to some fiction of market efficiency or to a man paid $3.6 million, only to sell it back to its owners very thinly. It is not a favour granted to us by men who know better, but a utility that should have become not only useful to all, but a matter of national pride.

When citizens take no pride in the things that their labour has built, when they come face to face with the frustration of being called “end users” who do not deserve their fibre, they will their take pride where they can find it. Every time I hear a Morrow distance the people from the things that they own, I sense another vote for a Bernardi. When people have little to believe in or hope for, some of them believe in a hopeless nothing like nationalism.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The political future of this nation is as fragile as its ageing copper. Return to the people what is theirs or find some of them demanding a fictional and poison thing, like Australian “identity” back.

The NBN forms part of a broader outrageous story of greed, lust and ideological vanity. Change the script, or suffer a nation’s tragic flop.

Peter Fray

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