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Abbott's Broadband Blunder

Nick Bryant | 06:27 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How much is a loaf of bread? What is the cost of borrowing? How about a pint of milk? Watching politicians get caught out by such questions is one of the great staples of modern-day campaigns the world over. Now Australia has delivered the digital equivalent.

abbott_afp304.jpgOn the day that the opposition Liberal party unveiled its new broadband policy, Tony Abbott appeared on the ABC's 730 Report, the country's most influential current affairs programme, and was forced to concede that he was no "tech-head". He clearly did not know what was meant by "peak speed," the quickest speed at which internet users can download material when there are fewer people online, which is usually very late at night.

Pressed repeatedly by Kerry O'Brien, Abbott floundered. Up the information superhighway without a paddle, I suppose you could say.
"I'm no Bill Gates here and I don't claim to be any kind of tech head," he said.
You can watch or read the transcript here.

During this campaign, Tony Abbott has tried to play it safe. But here, he was clearly well outside his comfort zone. He almost looked like the victim of one of those terrible mix-ups in the green room - the area where television guests have a glass of water, etc, before they are due on air - when the wrong guest is wheeled into the studio to talk on a subject they know very little about.

Australia's sluggish broadband speeds are a significant issue here, as no doubt regular readers of this blog will know. It is also one of the few policy areas where there is a very major difference between the policies of two major parties.

The Labor government plans to create a National Broadband Network (NBN) based on fibre optics at an estimated cost of $A43bn (£25bn). It would offer download speeds of 100 megabits per second that would reach 93% of Australian homes and premises.

The opposition has now put forward a cheaper alternative: a $A6.3bn network, based on upgrading existing copper networks. It would reach 97% of the population, be rolled out sooner, but the broadband speeds would be slower: a base line minimum, to use the jargon, of 12 megabits per second.

The opposition claims the National Broadband Network will be a "great big white elephant". The government claims the opposition is offering Australians a "second-class" broadband network, which will leave the country in the "digital dark ages". I'm no tech-head either, but here's a debate between a couple of experts who are.

The broadband debate is highly emblematic. The government claims it shows that the Liberals are rooted in the past and promote business-friendly policies that are not always in the interest of the common good. The Liberal's scheme would rely on the private sector.

In response, the opposition claims the Labor government does not have the competence to roll-out a national broadband network, and that the problems with the school building programme and home insulation scheme show it cannot deliver major infrastructure projects. To them, the NBN amounts to nationalisation.

You can get more of a sense of the political debate here.

As we predicted over the weekend, Tony Abbott is coming under much greater scrutiny. How significant, then, is his broadband blunder?

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