(mis)adventures in software development...

15 May 2019

Malcolm Turnbull’s terrible NBN legacy

Category Technology

A eulogy for Malcolm Turnbull's political career. And the NBN.

Hey remember Malcolm Turnbull? Remember that guy? Remember him? He was the Prime Minister until not too long ago, wasn’t he? He was the also guy largely responsible for screwing up the NBN.

Remember the NBN? That huge national infrastructure project that would have brought great benefits to the nation — if Malcolm and the LNP Coalition government hadn’t screwed it up.

Malcolm Turnbull might not be dead yet, but his political career is, and its ghost will haunt the NBN for years to come.

As this election campaign grinds into its last week, and draws to a merciful end, the Coalition is asking Australian voters to re-elect the same old government with new leader in Scott Morrison. It might be instructive to take a little walk down memory lane and look back on the largely lamentable legacy of its previous leader. The one who destroyed the NBN — a fact that seems to have been largely forgotten.

While not necessarily surprising, I do feel it’s certainly dispiriting how little the NBN has been mentioned during this election campaign. It’s not a surprise because technology issues rarely make it into the mainstream political discourse — there just aren’t enough votes there to matter, it seems. And computer nerds aren’t very good at organising collectively in a way that makes the powers-that-be take notice.

The NBN, despite being a relatively dull tech issue at its core, had a moment of mainstream political fame years ago, because of the costs involved, and because the Coalition sensed there was some cheap political points to be scored there — at the expense of the nation.

I’ve been trying to avoid writing (or thinking) about the NBN, because what’s the point anyway? Most people in the tech industry are well aware of the issues involved, and the deficiencies in Malcolm’s multi-technology mix version of the NBN. It’s a bit hard not to, when a crucial piece of infrastructure we rely on day to day to make a living doesn’t work reliably. Political point scoring is one thing, but some of us need a reliable and fast internet connect to do actual work, and every dropout is a testament to the failure of Malcolm Turnbull, as former Communications Minister in charge of the NBN, and more broadly as a failed politician. Seems people outside the tech industry generally don’t care enough to make a difference. And computer nerds generally aren’t very good at explaining to the masses why certain tech issues are important.

It’s all just screaming into the void. Same with all the other technology-related failures of the LNP government — the failed census, robodebt, the terrible metadata retention scheme, the even worse AA Bill, MyHealthRecord…the list goes on. This government cannot computer.

A lot of this seems to have been forgotten, as the media focuses elsewhere, and the news cycle inevitably moves on.

But if we don’t look back at the past, we will never learn from it, and risk repeating the same mistakes.

Malcolm Turnbull might be gone from politics, but the forces in place that led to his failures, and to his undermining of the NBN, are still there. The hostility towards technology, and ill-informed policy resulting from this, is still there within the Coalition, ready to undermine other industries, like renewable energy.

Of course, the state of the NBN is a result of many factors going back decades. As is always the case with politics, shitfuckery abounds, on both sides. The fact the Coalition even got elected in 2013 under the leadership of Tony Abbott was the result of the Labor party imploding. Labor is responsible for an otherwise unelectable Tony Abbott managing to actually win an election, and set the stage for Turnbull to undermine the NBN as Communication minister. But the Coalition shitfuckery in this area was generally worse than Labor’s when it comes to Australia’s broadband infrastructure — from John Howard’s fateful decision to privatise Telstra without structural separation, a series of incredibly incompetent Communications and Information Technology ministers (remember international laughing stock Richard Alston?), George Brandis introducing Metadata retention then spectacularly failing to explain metadata in a TV interview, and a series of draconian surveillance and anti-encryption laws mis-characterised as “national security”.

So while the state of the NBN might not be entirely Turnbull’s fault, he had a huge influence with his terrible decision to abandon Labor’s plan of universal optic fibre and change to a ridiculous “multi-technology mix” relying on archaic copper cables.

The resulting problems caused by this decision is essentially Malcolm Turnbull’s main legacy. We should remember this fuck up, and apportion blame for it to Turnbull, in the hope that future politicians in similar position of power would be more likely to make better decisions.

But what really annoys me about the whole thing is how predictable it was. Every single knowledgeable telecommunications expert at the time was of the opinion that Turnbull’s multi-technology mix NBN was various combinations of inferior, stupid and insane. Of course, there were numerous clueless partisans commentators willing to defend the coalitions’s flawed broadband policy. And these people’s clearly wrong opinions were taken seriously by a credible media wanting to “both sides” the issue.

I have never understood the contortions journalists make in the pursuit of some misguided ideal of “objectivity”. The problems with this are manifest in a world where Donald Trump is president. But the problems have been there for a long time, and have consequences. We’ve seen climate change sceptics with no expertise or qualifications put up again qualified climate scientists to debate climate change. We get the views anti-vaccination crackpots with no credible evidence presented along with the advice from qualified medical professionals and scientists.

The last decade or so of Australian (and international) politics has exposed the flaws of this kind of media reporting. There seems to be a desperate need by political journalists for narrative — and to believe that the people they are reporting on in positions of power have character, intelligence, gravitas. Surely the vagaries of our elected political leaders should have dispelled this myth by now? Our politicians are mostly power hungry grifters driven by a desire for fame, power, self aggrandisement and self enrichment, rather than any real desire for public service.

The political careers of both Malcolm Turnbull, and his predecessors as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, benefited greatly from a credulous media. I’m not really talking about the right wing propaganda machine of New Corp, which is a whole other shitshow. People fed a diet of Murdoch bullshit are obviously going to be ill-informed.

It’s annoying that even more credible media outlets largely recycle press releases, or just uncritically report the utterances of politicians as news, even if it is plainly untrue or non-sensical. There was a hell of a lot of that going around at the time regarding the NBN.

Looking back to 2013, it’s clear now the LNP under Tony Abbott had no credible plan for a decent broadband network. “Better, faster, sooner” my ass. They wanted to do what they could to undermine the NBN — their NBN policy was just a weak exercise in plausible deniability.

Yet, it was reported in the media as if it was a credible communications policy, and after the election, Malcolm Turnbull was taken seriously as communications minister.

I think there was a sense at the time that after the Labor party imploded while in office, it kind of ruined the usual subtext of political reporting that these were the great men and women of history, and made it look more like high school bickering. So there was a desperate need amongst reporters to present the Coalition a sensible and responsible alternative. But Tony Abbott was opposition leader at the time, and he was neither. We certainly didn’t get sensible or responsible government with Abbott as Prime Minister. We got knights and dames, knighthoods for Prince Phillip, raw onion eating, and lots of other weirdness, but no sign of good government.

The entire country breathed a great sigh of relief when Abbott was deposed by Turnbull. The weirdness and delusion was gone, but more importantly, here, finally, was a Prime Minister that looked and acted the part. Turnbull looked like a Prime Minister. He spoke like a Prime Minister. His background make it seem that, on paper at least, he would make a good Prime Minister. And he enjoyed some initial popularity. That soon faded, however, as it became increasingly apparent he didn’t have much more idea of what he was doing than his predecessors.

It’s deeply weird to me that even when a politician conclusively demonstrates they have no idea what they’re talking about, not idea what they’re doing, and no ideas in general, they are still taken seriously by political journalists.

I think Turnbull was particularly interesting in this regard, because he looked and sounded the part so well. He was the ultimate cosplay as Prime Minister of Australia. And before that, he got to cosplay as Communications minister. Unfortunately, the media mistook his pathetic cosplay broadband policy as something that made sense, when every expert in the country was screaming that it did not.

Politicians are human beings after all. Being elected doesn’t automatically give them new skills or talents. Most at some point in their lives were second rate suburban accountants and lawyers. They’re all essentially cosplaying as politicians. (Except for Barnaby Joyce, who cosplays as a farmer. One of the more amusing owns of Barnaby Joyce I’ve seen on Twitter involve references to him being a suburban accountant before entering politics. But he wears Akubra hats and R.M Williams boots whenever there’s cameras likely to be around, trying to look rural. Seems to work though. Especially on gullible journalists.)

Obviously, looking like a Prime Minister does not guarantee success as one. Neither does being an investment banker or lawyer. On paper, Turnbull’s background makes it seem like he might actually make a good Prime Minister. In reality, it did not. Success in one field does not guarantee success in another. Donald Trump is another obvious example of that. Although it increasingly seems like Trump’s business success was largely a fiction of his own creation. I wonder how much of Turnbull’s business success is due to skill and talent, and how much to white male privilege and dumb luck? His supposed business acumen didn’t help when it came to building a world class broadband network. And it certainly didn’t help him handle the ideological and personal divisions within his own party that ultimately cost him his job as PM.

The NBN rollout is entering its last stages. Regardless of who wins the election, it’s unlikely it will get better any time soon. Turnbull’s terrible switch from fibre to a multi-technology mix have crippled it for years to come, without a great upgrade path. Eventually there will be no choice but to replace the remaining copper-based parts of the network with optic fibre, at great expense, but we’re stuck with what we’ve got for now.

So Malcolm Turnbull looked the part, sounded the part, and had a background that suggested he might be good as both Communications Minister, and then Prime Minister. But he wasn’t. He was terrible at both. The resulting NBN is a mess. And his political career ended with an incredibly messy coup by Peter Dutton (of all “people”!).

Turnbull’s career, and the NBN, provide an instructive look at what what promised, and what was eventually delivered. Neither was successful. Signs of problems with both were there from the start. (Problems that weren’t particularly prominently address by political journalists at the time.)

The LNP promised an NBN that would be fast, affordable, sooner. It’s none of that. Outside of the fibre parts of the network, it’s slow and prone to dropouts. As the NBN rollout finishes up, Australia continues to drop in global speed ranking — down from 50th to 62nd.

None of that has featured in this election campaign. As far as the NBN goes, the fact the coalition made a mess of it seems to have been forgotten.

It’s as if the NBN issue has been neutralised now that Turnbull is gone. But while Scott Morrison might not have had much direct involvement in screwing up the NBN (he was busy being cruel to asylum seekers) the same political forces are still there, and we shouldn’t forget Morrison is now leading the government responsible for screwing up the NBN. Since he’s only been PM for 8 months, he doesn’t have much of a record to run on, going into this election. But the political coalition he is notionally leading has been in government for 6 years, and in that time they have achieved little — apart from screwing up the NBN.

The government is asking to be re-elected but not providing much in policies. Morrison is running essentially on a platform that he is not Bill Shorten, nor is he Malcolm Turnbull. Or Tony Abbott.

Meanwhile, the climate is changing, and we’ve had six years of inaction, while the Coalition government worked to undermine renewable energy the same way they’ve undermined the NBN.

Remember, every time your internet connection craps out, that’s the legacy of Malcolm Turnbull.

With that ranting out of my system, I should now post this thing before my internet connection craps out. Again.