The National Broadband Network and outdoor toilets – they have something in common

The National Broadband Network (NBN) isn’t going quite according to promise or plan, which might be because the current government aren’t nation builders, writes Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare.

On the day former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died – nearly a year ago – I did an interview on theToday Show. Karl Stefanovic asked me what I thought was the most important thing Gough did. I told him what my mum and dad told me. It wasn’t universal health care or free university education. It was sewerage.

Whitlam sewered the western suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other parts of the country that until then had to rely on a septic tank or an outdoor thunder box.

Why was this so important to my parents? Well if you have ever had to go outside in winter in the middle of the night to go to the loo you would know why.

When Gough first started talking about the federal government sewering the suburbs he was sneered at by his political opponents and the media. The then Prime Minister John Gorton said Whitlam sounded more like a shire president than an aspiring PM.

The Sydney Morning Herald in its 1969 election editorial derided what it called: “Mr Whitlam’s dizzy vision of a paternal, centralist Government in Canberra deciding the education of children in New England and the correct line of a sewer in Bankstown.”

The same newspaper said very different things last year. In its editorial the day after Gough died, theHerald praised the man who it said: “brought schooling to the masses and sewerage to their outer suburban homes.”

How things change. Whitlam’s sewerage program isn’t sneered at anymore. It is considered essential infrastructure. A utility. It is hard to imagine life without it. But it would not have happened, not as fast, without Whitlam.

Infrastructure changes the way we live and work

Twenty years after Gough another Labor Prime Minister talked about another utility. In 1995, Prime Minister Paul Keating released a report called Networking Australia’s Future. In launching the report he made a very prescient statement: “We have to decide, as from now, that access to the national information infrastructure will be no less a general right than access to water, or public transport or electricity.”

National information infrastructure is as important as water or electricity. In other words a utility. That’s what the National Broadband Network (NBN) is.

It will change the way we live and the way we work – just like electricity did.

When electricity was rolled out to homes across Australia, almost 100 years ago, no one imagined it would be used for things like television, air conditioning or computers. Its purpose was to light the house. Very quickly it prompted the invention of things like electric kettles, electric heaters, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, stoves, fridges and lots more.

Why did this happen? The infrastructure led to innovation and that led to demand for more electricity.

The same thing will happen with the NBN. It will spur innovation. It will create jobs. It will transform the way education and health services are delivered and it will change the way we live in ways it is impossible to even imagine now.

It is a great Labor nation building project.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has never understood this. He still doesn’t. He once said: “Do we really want to invest $50 billion of hard earned taxpayers money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?”

In 2010, Abbott gave Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull the job of “demolishing the NBN”. And he has done a pretty good job of that. Most Australians will no longer get fibre-to-the-premises. Instead they will get a slower second rate version of the NBN, using the old Telstra copper network.

Not only are Australians getting a slower NBN, it is also rolling out slower than they were promised and it is going to cost them a lot more than they thought it would.

This week it was revealed that the cost of their second rate NBN has almost doubled. Before the last election, Turnbull promised he could build the NBN for $29.5b. This has now blown out to $56b. This is the third time the cost of the NBN has blown out in less than two years.

Promises and reality

Remember all those promises about cutting the debt and cutting the deficit? Well debt’s up, they have doubled the deficit, and now they have almost doubled the cost of the NBN.

The other big promise Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull made was that everyone in Australia would get access to the NBN by the end of next year. On election night Tony Abbott even said, “I want our NBN rolled out within three years and Malcolm Turnbull is the right person to make this happen.”

That promise has also hit the fence. It was revealed this week that by June 2017 more than half the country still won’t have access to the NBN.

Why is this happening? How did they get it so wrong? They answer is because they had no idea how difficult it would be to switch from building a fibre NBN to a copper NBN.

The negotiations to buy back the old copper network took much longer than expected. As a result the fibre-to-the-node network is at least a year behind schedule. We were told it would be rolling out at scale a year ago. It still isn’t.

The Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) network is also way behind schedule. We were promised 2.61 million homes would be connected to the NBN via HFC by the end of next year.

That’s not going to happen either. It was revealed this week that only 875,000 homes will have access to the NBN via HFC by June 2017.

The cost of the IT systems to run this second rate network was also severely underestimated. Eighteen months ago, we were told it would cost an additional $180 -– $290 million. That’s now blown out to about $1 billion.

So this is where we are – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s second rate NBN is rolling out slower than they promised and it is more expensive than they promised. And remember this doesn’t include the cost of upgrading this second rate network in the future.

From Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare’s media release, August 24

Getting back to Whitlam

Neville Wran, the former Premier of NSW once remarked “it was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick, and left it marble. It will be said of Gough Whitlam that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered, and left them fully flushed.”

That’s not exactly true. Whitlam’s sewerage program didn’t achieve its ultimate objective to connect every Australian home to modern sewerage services.

Why? Because it was terminated by Malcolm Fraser in 1977.

Sound familiar?

By then most of the sewerage program had been rolled. But Liberal Prime Minister Malcom Fraser’s government didn’t finish the job. That was left to others.

Thirty-eight years on, another Malcolm is doing exactly the same thing. All we are getting is a half completed, second rate network. It will do the basics, but not everything you want or will need in the future.

Australia deserves better. And it will eventually get it – but not by this government.

And when that day comes I am sure we will look back on this project like we now look back on the Whitlam sewerage program, and think of fibre to a box in the street as archaic as a toilet in the backyard.

This piece originally appeared in Labor Herald on Tuesday, 25 August 2015.