Early next month when Treasurer Wayne Swan delivers his penultimate Budget before next year’s Federal election the Australian public will, once again, be asked to accept at face value the wisdom of Labor’s commitment to the biggest and most expensive infrastructure project in the world.
We are constantly assured by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her senior ministers that the $36 billion National Broadband Network, the corner-stone for which is potentially high speed fibre optic cable, can be justified because it will revolutionise communications across the nation and put Australia at the cutting edge of global technology development.
Since it was established by the Government three years ago NBN Co (the vehicle driving the “super fast” cable rollout) has been spending public money like there is no tomorrow. Most recently it has commissioned the building of two satellites to provide the NBN service to about 200,000 people in remote areas of the country under a $620m contract.
But don’t expect any of this to be a financial drag on Swan’s apparently unrelenting determination to produce a surplus Budget to Parliament on May 8. This is because NBN Co is accounted for as a financial asset and not an expense item in the Budget despite the millions which the Government is transferring into its coffers. This will only change if the Government’s equity stake in NBN Co is worth less than the contribution is has pumped into the company. And that eventuality would, presumably, not arise until NBN Co was privatised – when and if that even happens.
In the meantime the electorate is being told not to worry about all this and, instead, to look on the bright side to a brave new world where traditional transport facilities will become less necessary as they are replaced by tele-working, video-conferencing, tele-health and tele-education services as part of Labor’s communications revolution.
Taking a long bow to this the Government has argued that the decommissioning of the current copper communications backbone across the country and the mandatory installation of fibre optic cable to 97 per cent of homes and businesses around Australia will take the pressure off transport based infrastructure projects and consequently be environmentally friendly.
Jumping at this the Greens are hammering the conservative Opposition for daring to question the viability of Labor’s policy. “It’s time for the Coalition to abandon their dogmatic vow to ‘demolish’ the NBN,” says Greens communications spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam.
He says the Coalition is clinging to a half-baked scheme to halt the NBN but must face the fact that it is here to stay with more than 3.5 million homes, hospitals, schools and other institutions connected when it is finished.
But one thing the Greens, and Gillard along with her minority Government fellow travellers, seem to be conveniently overlooking is the increased energy demands and associated costs that will be generated by this high powered, ubiquitous, communications system.
Household power costs are already projected to rise steeply and that is before Gillard’s Greens friendly Carbon Tax kicks in from July.
Along with the social welfare cheques which Gillard has started handing out to smother the impact of this cost of living hike Government spin is urging householders to turn off as many appliances as possible when not in use including computers.
Does this include the power driven high speed broadband connection which is going to be the gatekeeper for all communications into the home? The simple fact is the Government can’t have it both ways. If it wants the NBN to meet the expectations created around it and to be financially attractive enough to encourage a successful privatisation down the track it surely needs to be going flat out around the clock. Or am I missing something?