Michael Sainsbury
July 18, 2016

Steady as she goes for Comms roles

New Ministry

Steady as she goes for Comms roles

Fiona Nash: Steady as she goes, retaining Regional Communications alongside Mitch Fifield

One the surface, with all-out, all-change in the innovation portfolio taking the spotlight in the sector, it’s very much steady as she goes in the new Turnbull Ministry’s communications portfolio.

Both Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash, the deputy leader of a freshly-bolstered National Party, have been re-appointed to their jobs.

This continuity at least provides some stability, but it is by no means an indication that it will be business as usual. Indeed, quite the opposite should and will likely be the case.

As Opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare pointed out during the campaign (with the considerable help of the ludicrous own goal of the Australian Federal Police raids) the financial and technological disaster that is the Multi-Technology Mix was laid bare by the NBN’s founding chief executive Mike Quigley in an eviscerating presentation.

So it's time for the sensible, grown-up conversations that Mr Turnbull is alleged to have wanted to have with the electorate. Let’s start with the most expensive and important infrastructure project in Australia’s history, then.

One theme that has emerged in the close election result is that the Liberals were not listening enough and one of the issues they clearly were not interested in listening to was broadband.

This is an issue, as InnovationAus.com has noted previously, the NBN situation needs an overall fix before the next election. With such a wafer thin majority, broadband could quite seriously be a Government changer.

This is the toughest one of all for the Prime Minister. Communications policy, and the mess of an NBN is all his doing so it is a much tougher problem to “fix”.

Still, there is a relatively neat way towards repairing the NBN without being seen as political back-peddle. (Well, not too much of one, anyway.)

While Senator Fifield remains the largely invisible Minister for Communications (and when one thinks about it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing after the Conroy and Turnbull years), Senator Nash’s role should not be underestimated. Especially now.

The Nationals have new heft in the Coalition by dint of them holding their numbers in the election while the Liberals lost a chunk of seats, so the balance has shifted quite considerably in their favour.

Both Senator Nash and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce from their very first weeks in parliament last decade have been amongst the strongest advocates in the parliament for better broadband services to provincial Australia. And it is here, along with the suburban rings around the major cities, that they are most needed.

The Nationals should be actively using their more powerful position to push for to the NBN. The company’s management will be able to, quite legitimately have a public exploration to FTTdp technology and promote the fact that FTTP has become much cheaper – and most importantly, far more revenue effective – than it was when the MTM was conceived.

But whatever fudges are needed to save face for the PM – they should be made and ASAP, before Australia is stuck with a second rate network that will be very, very expensive to upgrade.

Fortunately politically realities should now gel with practical considerations.

It’s worth noting, too, that Telstra has not even waited for the ink to dry on the announcement of a new ministry by Mr Turnbull to launch a major new marketing campaign that has been funded by the taxpayers’ $12 billion gift to the company. So there is likely to be plenty of work in the competition and regulatory field to keep Senator Fifield and the competition regulator flat chat.

“We need to design and build a new regulatory framework, as recommended as part of the ongoing review of the ACMA, Comms Alliance chairman John Stanton said.

“This is urgent - there are many legacy pieces of regulation that simply won't work in an environment dominated by next generation networks. This links also to the review of consumer safeguards that DoCA is about to commence.

”The review of spectrum policy needs to be completed along with other planned deregulatory tasks, including the transfer to industry of numbering management

Meanwhile, to accomplish what must be done with the NBN, its clearly time for the company’s chairman Ziggy Switkowksi to be given a pat on the back and send on his way and a chair more independent from the government - in the name of good government, appointed to clean up the NBN mess, however quietly.

Maybe former Optus boss Paul O’Sullivan could be given a call, or iiNet founder Michael Malone promoted from the board.

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