I will stop/I will stop at nothing/Say the right things/When electioneering/I trust I can rely on your vote…

It begins:

“The roll-out of a multibillion-dollar high-speed broadband network in the cities could be rushed through as the Federal Government tries to seize the upper hand in the debate before the election.

At the same time, it will spend $900 million – $300 million more than expected – on improving internet speeds and access in regional and remote areas.”

Now bear in mind that only a couple of months ago the PM was decrying a Rudd/Labor broadband plan ‘reckless‘ because it involved the Future Fund:

“This appears to be an economically irresponsible way of funding a program,” Howard told parliament. “It also appears to be short-sighted with no regard for the future and no regard to the fact that of all the challenges this country faces, none is greater than the ageing of our population.”

Second, Telstra* is likely to benefit greatly from this deal, particularly given that it is not getting along with the monopoly-averse Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. In fact not only had Telstra not even handed in a formal proposal for their plan to roll out (and control) a Fibre to the Node network, they campaigned against the ACCC so heavy-handedly that the PM had to step in.

(*Non-Australians: Telstra is what used to be the state-owned telecoms monopoly, now partially-privatised. The Future Fund, by the by, is made up of the billions earned selling off the majority ownership – the government now holds only something like 17% of the shares, when originally they were supposed to retain 51%, and control of the board. That turned out not to have been a core promise).

Telstra, of course, doesn’t have the best record when it comes to serving the Bush, and their proposed charges for rivals to use their network were the sticking-point with the ACCC in the first place.

Rudd/Labor’s plan was government/private (not in a Blairite PFI travestic fashion, one hopes), securing some…security against Telstra-monopolised crappy broadband extending barely to suburbs while Australia falls further behind Asia. The question is, might it anyway?

Certainly, after Labor put forth its plan to invest towards 5bn AUD in infrastructure, the Libs needed something – and they have it. The PM recently complained, “Why should we use $2.7 billion that’s been locked up for future generations, why should we use that to fund the provision of something that the private sector ought to provide in a normal market situation?” Well, for a start one ought to wonder at least for a moment what they expect to get for their investment – taxpayers usually accept lower rates of return than shareholders.

Second, those future generations might appreciate an telecommunications infrastructure of the first order when they start trying to compete with the rest of the world.

Third, those future generations might like to know why government cooked up a plan that sidelined the ACCC altogether – especially if Telstra ends up getting exactly what it wanted all along, and those future generations don’t – remember that last time this government was in charge of large-scale infrastructure?. Optus’ ‘G9’ consortium is promising entry-level prices half that of Telstra’s (we believe – Telstra isn’t making much public at the moment, just advertising against the ACCC and demanding that we leave it all up to them). Unfortunately their funding isn’t all that secure, and they’d still need Telstra’s copper wires along the way.

Frankly, I’d rather an open and transparent process involving the government, the ACCC and the public (if only as a poor referee between Telstra’s lapdog and Singapore’s lapdog). Even if Australia doesn’t get its legislation in before the election.


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