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The NBN and the Spirit of Christmas

30 Nov 2010

First Published on The Drum 30/11/2010

The magic of Christmas lies in the expectation. You hang out the stocking, leave a piece of cake and a stubbie for Santa and head off to bed.

When you wake up, there it is laid out for you, something shiny and new that you really, really wanted.

In this spirit it should come as no surprise that the Federal Parliament’s final act of the year was the passage of legislation enabling the rollout of the National Broadband Network, the embodiment of Labor’s hope that something better lies around the corner.

And there are grounds for optimism. In an era of cynicism with nearly every aspect of politics – and despite a concerted Opposition attack – this week’s Essential Report shows strong and increasing support for the network.

Q. The Federal Government plans to build a National Broadband Network over the next few years. How important do you think it is for Australia to build a National Broadband Network?

Total Nov 2010 Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens Nov 2009
Total important 69% 87% 54% 84% 65%
Total not important 25% 9% 42% 12% 26%
Very Important 35% 55% 17% 55% 30%
Quite Important 34% 32% 37% 29% 35%
Not so important 14% 6% 21% 10% 20%
Not at all important 11% 3% 21% 2% 6%
Don’t know 6% 4% 4% 3% 8%

The figures show that across the political spectrum there is faith in the NBN despite the hefty price tag and ongoing difficulty in articulating what the NBN will actually deliver.

Perhaps that’s the reason the NBN is such a game-changer politically – for once we are being asked to imagine the future without the tight constraints of a three-year political cycle.

While voters consistently tell us they want leaders to think long-term, plan for the future and support nation-building projects, so much of our national debate is rooted in small debates – personal politics, culture wars, economic indicators with no context.

The NBN is different – it is a big idea with no simple definition. Accepting that faster internet downloads will hardly change the world, people still seem to grasp that the benefits of the NBN lie in possibilities that are yet to be created.

Q. Thinking about the Government’s plan to build a National Broadband Network, how much benefit will a National Broadband Network be to –

Total benefit Great benefit Some benefit Little benefit Don’t know
Australian businesses 84% 55% 29% 8% 8%
Schools 78% 48% 30% 14% 8%
The general public overall 78% 44% 34% 15% 8%
Children 72% 39% 33% 19% 9%
The Australian economy 71% 39% 32% 18% 11%
You personally 65% 33% 32% 27% 8%
The economy of your local community 65% 32% 33% 24% 12%

This outbreak of optimism, is an interesting punctuation mark to what has been a pretty dismal year, where action on climate change stalled, big miners asserted their control over the government and dog-whistling reared its ugly head again.

It’s no coincidence that the one election play that gave Labor real momentum was its e-health initiative, linking its natural advantage of health delivery with the hope of new and better ways of delivering services over the NBN.

For Labor the NBN allows it to enter the festive season with the promise of better days ahead – nothing too concrete, just a big nation-building project that the public overwhelmingly supports and that invites them to imagine a better future.

For the Opposition, it provides an early warning that its textbook oppositional-ism has its limits; that the Australian public may be sceptical but they don’t necessarily fear the future, even when it comes with a price tag.

Of course there will be scrutiny – The Australian has already established an ‘NBN watch’ campaign in the spirit of its attack on the BER – but what the critics won’t be able to do is stifle the ideas and developments that enabling technology of this sort will inevitably generate.

And that’s the key. Like Santa Claus itself, if Labor can maintain belief in the NBN over the next 12 months it has the potential to deliver them some much-needed political magic.

Peter Lewis, Director, EMC