While the government goes to pieces over marriage equality, some holding operations have become necessary on two other major fronts, both of which, in normal circumstances, would be significant medium-term problems.
One is the NBN. The government is now facing the consequences of its decision to wreck the project by switching to Fibre To The Node/Fibre To The Some Other Random Point Short Of Your Premises where it could, and using handpicked consultants, handpicked board members and handpicked executives to oversee the debacle. Malcolm Turnbull owns the whole project now, which after four years can no longer be blamed on Labor.
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As CEO Bill Morrow noted, it’s inevitable that there would be a rising tide of complaints as more and more people switched over. But the unedifying sight of Morrow trying to blame massive consumer disgruntlement with their new NBN services on ISPs was never going to fly. Who are you going to believe, your ISP or a company that’s already a byword for the degradation of major nation-building project? And while residential users will be more numerous, it’s business users that have the most to lose from this mega-bungle as phones turn off, the internet isn’t available and upload and download speeds constrain business.
Sensing how bad the spat between Morrow and ISPs looked, the government intervened to flick the whole shambles to the communications regulator ACMA for investigation. Meantime, the steady drip of stories about rotten NBN experiences will continue, from the people who switch over to the NBN and discover they have no phone or internet for weeks to the people being forcibly moved from perfectly good HFC networks to the NBN and experiencing a dramatic slowdown in speeds. And NBN Co, where the first instinct is to aggressively attack critics (or call in the Federal Police to go after them) won’t make things any easier for the government.
The slowly unfolding story of the NSW government’s role, and that of both the NSW and federal Nationals, in undermining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, is the second serious front that’s opened up against the government and it, too, has been dispatched to a review — although not a sufficiently independent for the liking of the South Australians.
Make no mistake, this has the potential for real damage as more detail emerges from NSW, and about Barnaby Joyce’s handling of it all. Significantly, rather than running protection for the Coalition, News Corp’s Sydney tabloid has leapt into the fray, following the lead of the ABC, to air damaging allegations about the enthusiasm of the Nationals to do the bidding of irrigators — to the extent that irrigators and the Nationals are meaningfully separate entities. The issue has now come a lot closer to Barnaby Joyce after the Financial Review’s Phil Coorey claimed a scalp overnight: one of Joyce’s nominees to the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority withdrew after questions about her participation in, and statements during, that teleconference, in which NSW Primary Industries deputy Gavin Hanlon offered de-identified departmental documents to irrigator lobbyists. The nominee is, it’s perhaps superfluous to note, a former National Party staffer.
Remember that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is supposed to be bipartisan and federal-state agreement. The Nationals, however, have always bitterly resented it, particularly in relation to water buybacks, and were only bought off with the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars on inefficient water infrastructure bribes to irrigators. The removal of Tony Abbott proved to be an opportunity for the Nationals to sabotage the plan from within, by demanding that Malcolm Turnbull agree to move water from the environment portfolio into Barnaby Joyce’s Agriculture Department. Liberal MPs at the time expressed concern about Joyce having control of water, and those concerns have now been vindicated. The Nationals, state and federally, have been undermining the plan in the interests of irrigators, and at the expense of South Australia.
Following the initial Four Corners revelations, Joyce, allegedly “the best retail politician in Australia”, promptly boasted of controlling water and dismissed industrial-scale water diversion by NSW irrigators as trivial, infuriating the South Australians. So another review was ordered to shut the issue down, this time by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself, which is in Joyce’s portfolio. Cue demands for an independent inquiry, which are still ongoing.
The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are personally neck-deep in the NBN and water issues. Both are the result of political fixes on major issues that have come badly unstuck. In neither case is a mere review going to fix things. If the government wasn’t about to rip itself apart on marriage equality, things would be serious.