Why The ‘NBN Rollout Determined By Electorates’ Argument Doesn’t Hold Water

The Coalition’s latest attack on the NBN has shifted from purely financial to accusations of pork barrelling, stating that the areas chosen for the next range of roll-outs were selected for reasons of political expediency. How accurate is that kind of thinking?

Earlier in the week, I mused on whether opposition to the NBN was shifting from a costs basis to one of impatience. It looks like that prediction is coming ever more true, with Brisbane-based Coalition MPs complaining about the boundaries for NBN Co’s three-year rollout plan.

The Australian reports that Liberal MP Andrew Laming is decrying the rollout strategy, stating that Labor was servicing its own seats as a survival strategy in light of the recent state election. The Australianwhose own particular position on the NBN is rather well known (as, to be fair, is Gizmodo’s) — quotes Dr Laming as stating that

“The cold, hard reality in Brisbane is that households in Labor seats are eight times more likely to get the NBN than those in Coalition seats. Worse, the odds are around 50 per cent better if your Labor MP is a minister. This is a save-the-political-furniture strategy. They are not targeting marginal seats here. They are just trying to survive.”

Laming’s not the only Coalition politician on the warpath; Paul Fletcher, the Federal Member for Bradfield has issued a release with much the same spin:

“Stephen Conroy was at pains last week to argue that there was no political bias, and the number of Labor seats receiving the NBN was similar to the number of Coalition seats. But as the Coalition’s detailed analysis of NBN’s suburb by suburb rollout promises in Brisbane reveals, this claim from Stephen Conroy is no more reliable than any of the other claims he has made about broadband.”

NBN Co has been adamant that rollout strategies were chosen with physical and infrastructure boundaries in mind. Speaking at the NBN Co three year plan announcement, CEO Mike Quigley stated that “The planners had no idea of electoral boundaries. Not even interested — I can assure you that wasn’t even considered.”

It does strike me that, presuming that NBN Co’s been working on the plan for some time, suggesting that it’d shift it in favour of an election that took place a fortnight ago seems to imbue NBN Co with rather clairvoyant powers of deduction in terms of results and then needed “survival” strategies.

In sheer numerical terms, the breakdown is fairly even; rollouts occur in 67 Labor electorates, 61 Coalition electorates and six cross-bench electorates. It does strike me that this could be something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of argument; if the rollout areas were in Coalition-held seats, it’d be just as easy to decry the NBN as trying to “buy” Coalition seats. That’s politics for you, I guess.

That aside, I thought it’d be interesting to see if this claimed bias plays out on a larger national scale. After all, if the strategy was to only target Labor electorates, then you’d omit the most obvious candidates — wouldn’t you?

So let’s run them down, starting at the very top; from my reading of NBN Co’s three year plan maps, Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah misses. Deputy Leader Julie Bishop’s seat of Subiaco is swathed in coverage. Warren Truss’ electorate of Wide Bay isn’t — as Truss himself noted earlier in the week– on the three year plan, although there may be constituents receiving NBN connectivity via satellite.

While he’s no longer a member of the Coalition, they don’t come much more conservative than Bob Katter in Australian political circles. His seat of Kennedy largely misses out, although I’ve a sneaking suspicion many of the rural areas within Kennedy may be satellite serviced instead in the same way that Wide Bay is, and the three year maps on NBN Co’s site don’t show satellite or fixed wireless coverage zones at all.

In a similar vein, Sydney radio host — and noted conservative – Ray Hadley caused something of an NBN storm earlier in the week when he prefaced a paid NBN Co readout with his own opinion of the project (he’s not a fan). For what it’s worth, while I strongly disagree with Hadley’s viewpoint, I’ve got no problem whatsoever with the separation of editorial and advertising, and this is a prime example of that.

Back to the point, it would appear that Hadley may live in Dural (as per this story); that’s a no-NBN-yet zone.

In the interests of balance, flipping over to the other side of politics, what about Julia Gillard? She’s the member for Lalor, and there’s coverage within Lalor. Stephen Conroy’s a senator, so technically gets a tick for Victorian coverage generally; ditto for foreign minister Bob Carr. Wayne Swan’s division of Lilley is covered.

Just for the sake of complete coverage, there’s Bob Brown, but then he’s a Tasmanian senator, and that entire rollout is due to finish by the end of 2015.

The thing is, what does this all ultimately prove, beyond the fact that it’s easy to score a few headlines with accusations of pork barrelling?

Nothing. It’s not like the rollouts are directly on electoral lines anyway; there are plenty of areas within electorates that may get on the three year plan while other areas are, for the moment, passed over.

For what it’s worth, I’ve used the same criteria that Andrew Laming seems to have; if an area had some form of representation on the three year plan, then it “counts”… for whatever “counts” actually means. As an example, within Gillard’s seat of Lalor, you’re in the plan if you’re in Werribee or Melton, but those in Laverton or Rockbank are plumb out of luck.

I’ve also already noted that it’s a simple matter of mathematics that if your three year plan involves passing (roughly) a quarter of the premises in Australia, then the other three quarters must logically come later. As such, you could pluck any given number of examples out of the air along any particular lines you liked.

Is NBN Co biased against Coalition electorates? I’m sure I could find enough to stage that argument. Is it biased for Coalition electorates? Pretty certain there would be data that could support that assertion. Is it biased against areas with high Bilby populations, or where people like wearing garish Hawaiian shirts ? I could probably find figures to support those positions as well. You can cherry pick stats to support many arguments, but that doesn’t make your argument any more valid when you’re looking at a rollout of this scale.

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