Paul Fletcher Kevin Rudd NBN
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and former prime minister Kevin Rudd

It’s a backflip more than a decade in the making. Today, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher unveiled the Coalition’s big new plan to bring high-speed fibre-to-the-home internet to 2 million households around the country.

You could almost see Kevin Rudd’s face reddening. In 2009 the then-prime minister proposed a plan in which fibre-optic cables would run straight to people’s homes, delivering super-fast internet. For three years, the Coalition savaged that plan as a costly white elephant — yet another sign of Labor’s extravagant fiscal profligacy.

Then, after winning the 2013 election, they swiftly ditched Labor’s plan for a multi-technology mix, which saved money but delivered slower internet. Then the pandemic hit, everyone started working from home, and Australia’s internet infrastructure looked pretty inadequate. 

Now that the Coalition is finally realising Rudd’s plan, it’s worth having a look at what the Liberals have said about fibre to the home over the years.

Abbott’s white elephant

The Coalition’s attacks on the NBN were driven by Abbott — a notorious luddite — who, in 2010, ordered then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to “demolish” it.

Abbott, the two-fingered typer, couldn’t understand why Labor would spend taxpayers’ money on a “video entertainment system”. That quote comes from this 2010 press conference where he and Turnbull chuckled at the prospect of people watching things on the internet.

In 2012, he said the NBN was “the greatest white elephant this country has ever seen”. It was far more important, he said, to get the Pacific Highway duplicated.

Turnbull the attack dog

In a simpler time, a more loyal Turnbull relished his role as Abbott’s NBN attack dog. In 2010, he said Australians just didn’t want the internet speeds that 100Mbps fibre to the home would deliver. A decade on, Fletcher’s fibre-to-the-home pivot will be based on household demand. 

Like Abbott, Turnbull’s attacks focused on the supposedly obscene cost of fibre to the home. In 2013 he said, “[it’s] like saying to a builder, just build me a big house, I don’t need a quote, I don’t need a contract”.

After the election, Turnbull was tasked with junking fibre to the home. Before getting the results of a key review into the NBN, he proceeded with a pivot to a multiple technology mix. None of this, of course, stopped Turnbull from ensuring his Point Piper mansion had internet speeds of 100Mbps.

Fletcher, Fifield continue attacks

Paul Fletcher, architect of the backflip and a former Optus executive, also had some choice words about fibre to the home. In 2012, he argued that Labor’s plan would “entrench a digital divide” and that a fibre-to-the-node system could still deliver a “fast and rich internet experience”.

In 2015, he praised Turnbull’s “fact-based approach” to the NBN, and said that a multi-technology mix was “the best way to deliver high speeds”.

His predecessor, Mitch Fifield, sang from the same hymnbook. Last year he argued that the Coalition had taken over a failing Labor project and actually delivered better internet speeds. And earlier this year, as Kevin Rudd started firing potshots at the Coalition over the NBN, Fletcher hit back. 

“Labor’s plan for the NBN was fanciful — and Labor’s implementation of it was hopeless,” he wrote in an AFR op-ed.  “The NBN has come through just when our nation needed it most,” he declared.

Within months, he’d changed his mind. 

Peter Fray

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