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Issue #1589      April 17, 2013

Editorial

NBN – near enough not good enough

If the Coalition wins the election on September 14, it has promised to scuttle the National Broadband Network and replace it with a second rate alternative. A plan to allow access to very high speed Internet to 93 percent of the Australian population and acceptable speeds to even very remote areas would be axed. Another very expensive system would be foisted on the community with the prospect that it would have to be upgraded in the not-too-distant future, again at great expense. An opportunity to create modern, nation-building infrastructure would have been lost.

Why would forces like the Liberal and National parties be prepared to take such a destructive decision, so contrary to the longer term interests of the community, including commercial interests? The farce that passes for political debate in Australia is to blame. In their race to represent dominant interests in Australian society, Labor and the Coalition have come closer and closer to one another politically in recent decades. Just about every adult in the country is aware of this fact so, to attract increasingly jaded voters, the big two parties strive harder and harder to establish a “point of difference”.

For a long time, the Coalition has played the “better economic managers” card. In the old days, the Libs claimed they were more adept at controlling inflation, then interest rates. Now the boast is that it is the party of “fiscal responsibility” and balanced budgets. In line with this image, it has shown itself ready to shoot down or trim any proposition for reform for the benefit of the people of the country, while looking after monopoly interests and the wealthy at every turn.

Labor has posed as the party of the “big picture”, the grand reforms to move the country towards greater social justice and more modern social norms. Since the demise of the Whitlam Government, which actually did institute several reforms of that nature such as Medibank and free tertiary education, Labor has continued to sponsor grand sounding projects. Unfortunately, these have mostly proven to be duds that have done nothing to disrupt the overarching neo-liberal agenda. The carbon-tax and the mining tax are prime examples of this approach.

Into this pro-monopoly status quo came the proposition to build a national broadband network using state of the art fibre optic technology. It involves the construction of an impressive piece of infrastructure, not simply some creative accounting to give the appearance of doing something.

It’s true that the NBN will be a platform for profit-making by retailers for its services and it’s true that the Commonwealth has committed to bow out of its ownership role in future. It is, nevertheless, a project that offers to further break down the tyranny of distance that has always beset the country and opens up the possibility for a range new services and even industries. Notably, it bucked the trend in Australia by ensuring that regional areas would receive the benefits before major urban centres.

The shadow communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, knows all this and appears at his most unconvincing while trying to argue that similar possibilities could be provided using, in large part, the existing, limited, high-maintenance copper network. It’s simply not true but the opportunity to present the Coalition as the frugal alternative to the spendthrift Gillard government was not going to be passed up. Coalition strategists appear to be pitching to generations that spend less time on the Internet and may even consider it a fad.

The corporate media are assisting the Coalition’s election campaign solidly on this and many other issues. The smaller than anticipated number of subscribers to the NBN at the moment is being focussed on. So are delays involving contractors unable to deliver on time. Teething problems are being highlighted to promote the impression that the system could be a massive white elephant. The latest accusation about the NBN is that the $43 billion price tag for the project could blow out to $90 billion!

It is a great shame the NBN could fall victim of the no-holds-barred contest of the two big parties of capital. The NBN shouldn’t be shelved and the labour movement should fight for all aspects of its operation to be put into and kept in public hands. In this day and age, affordable access to quality Internet services is essential. The Coalition’s “near enough is good enough” approach must be fought.

Next article – Supreme Court of India on the Novartis Patent case

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