AbstractLiz Fell’s interview in 2011 with the Australian Shadow Minister for Telecommunications, Malcolm Turnbull MP, was notable for his combativeness (rare amongst her interviewees). In tribute to both Ms Fell and Mr Turnbull, we republish that interview with the future Prime Minister who, as Minister for Communications in 2013-15, implemented the multi-technology mix redesign of the National Broadband Network.
Liz Fell’s interview with Malcolm Turnbull on behalf of the Telecommunications Journal of Australia (TJA), took place in early January 2011 (Fell, 2011). This was around six months after the Labor Party had retained government following an Australian federal election.
Readers may remember that Julia Gillard challenged Kevin Rudd on 24 June 2010 and replaced him as the Labor Prime Minister. She received agreement from the Governor General to hold a snap election on 21 August 2010. Gillard was able to hold onto Government for Labor by obtaining crossbench support from four MPs, namely one Green and three Independents, thereby denying the Liberal-National Coalition, with Tony Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party, the right to govern for another three years. The independents quoted Labor’s National Broadband Network, which Tony Abbott had strongly opposed, as being the key policy reason for their supporting Gillard’s minority government (Gerrand, 2010).
In Turnbull’s recent memoir, A Bigger Picture (Turnbull, 2020), he relates how in 2010 Mr Abbott as Opposition Leader asked him to be Shadow Minister for Broadband and Communications to create a credible alternative broadband policy. Turnbull had considerable prior experience as an investment banker in telecommunications and software companies, including as chairman of OzEmail, which became Australia’s largest internet service provider, before it was sold to WorldCom in 1997.
Turnbull was only six months into serving as Shadow Communications Minister when Fell interviewed him for TJA. Turnbull had strong views on the path to success that NBN should take and it was not the path that Stephen Conroy had set in motion as Rudd’s Broadband Minister.
Fell had a number of issues she wanted to cover in the limited time available for the interview. Fell interrupts Turnbull several times and he responds with “Liz you don’t let me finish”. Towards the end of the interview, Turnbull’s media adviser, Jon Dart, says “We’ll have to wrap this up”, but Fell points out that Turnbull was 30 minutes late for a 60-minute interview. Turnbull graciously agrees to more questions and Fell (true to form) hits him with some difficult ones, including about Wikileaks, the convergence of media regulation and the structural separation of Telstra.
Fell finishes with the question:
“You’ve said the NBN is ‘a bit of a dream’ and ‘appeals to dreamers’. Do you still hold to these statements?”
“Well, I think whenever politicians talk about nation-building infrastructure, you want to start reaching for your wallet. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a role for infrastructure that helps build a nation – all infrastructure does that – but all too often they use that term to justify projects that haven’t been well thought through.
Again, Liz, I’m not against it. I’m madly in favour of broadband, indeed passionately in favour of it. My concern is simply cost-effectiveness. If we could deliver, for example, ADSL2+ speeds or better across Australia for a fraction of the NBN cost, why wouldn’t we do that and then see where technology went?
I mean Conroy talks about this on the basis of what demand may be in 30 years' time. We have no idea. Cast your mind back – 30 years was 1981 for goodness sake!”
Turnbull went on to be the Minister for Communications in the Abbott government in 2013, and later ousted Abbott to become Prime Minister in 2015. He presided over the current multi-technology mix redesign for the NBN, which he foreshadowed to Fell in this interview back in 2011.
Fell, L. (2011). Malcolm Turnbull: A Feisty Interview with the Shadow Minister, Telecommunications Journal of Australia, 61(1), 2.1-2.10. https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/file/8e19d297-67ac-45e7-8f9f-d4565b67221f/1/tja_2011_vol61_no1_02-fell.pdf
Gerrand, P. (2010). The National Broadband Network. The defining issue in Australian politics in 2010, Telecommunications Journal of Australia, 60(4), 52.1-52.4. https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/file/44d431fe-123c-49f7-9877-83997b425957/1/tja_2010_vol60_no4_01-gerrand.pdf
The Historic Paper
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