Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gerard Henderson, Ruddstra, Whitlam, Safety Nets and the Elephant in the Room

(Above: xkcd)

What's a member of the right wing commentariat to do when confronted with PM Kevin Rudd's grand Hoover dam-like plan for Australian broadband infrastructure?

Well, why not start by linking Kevin Rudd to the profligate, disintegrating days of the Whitlam government? Yep, it's all here in No safety net for Rudd's big plan.

It seems the Ruddster is a rarity among federal Labor leaders over the past three decades because he has a genuine admiration for the ALP's Gough Whitlam as a person, as opposition leader and as prime minister, and as a theoritician who believed intervention by government in society in general, and in the economy was good in itself. (And you know what that kind of talk means ... socialism, but sssh, not a word of that, just so long as we know that you know).

Now this is disingenuous at best, since I can trawl through any number of sentimental outings for people within the Labor tradition, like Hawke and Keating, and discover the usual pious platitudes for mates in the game (a bit like the mafiosi nodding to past dons), together with a belief that they're in the game because government intervention in society in general is good, and intervention in the economy can also be good in itself (let's not forget Keating's contribution to the shell game called superannuation, along with his neo-liberal moments).

And yes Whitlam is one of the dons who gets a lid doff most times, even if any rational member of the Labor party knows his government went beyond slightly mad in its final year.

But Henderson is intent on a dog whistle to his constituents, since to them Whitlam is just one step short of a demonic profligate satanist, though Henderson for some reason feels compelled to acknowledge that Rudd doesn't share Whitlam's indifference to economic realities - but nonetheless, according to Henderson, in a classic piece of opportunistic rationalization, has seized on the current blobal financial crisis to implement an agenda of intervening in society in general and the economy in particular.

Still with me? Yep, it seems like we have a latter day Franklin D. Roosevelt in our midst. Not some Liberal like Robert Menzies peddling the Snowy River Hydro-electric scheme, thank the lord.

But here's the tricky bit. Virtually no one would dispute the benefits of universal, or near universal high-speed internet.

So what else to do, after you've led the Whitlam metaphor as an ace of clubs? Well how about the cost - $200 a month for the average consumer, let's conjecture - which means with a pricing like that it'll end up just like the Cross City Tunnel, a wonderful piece of infrastructure no one wants to use for the price.

There's just one thing wrong with this remark by Paul Broad, CEO of AAPT. The Cross City Tunnel is a hopelessly crappy piece of infrastructure, with devious speed cameras inside it, so they can ping you for speeding as well as scalping your pocket for the privilege of driving a couple of miles underground in the vain hope of saving a little time (soaked up in due course by the inevitable traffic jam on the harbor bridge). 

It was a dumb idea by the RTA in thrall state Labor government, currently trying to make their lame duck announcement of a ill-thought-out Metro seem like it might actually work. Say no more.

So what else to cluck about? 

Well there's Japan, it has broadband and it's been a basket case for the past decade. Remind me again then why no one would dispute the benefits of universal or near universal high speed internet?

Better get away from all that, let's get back to Rudd being a worshipper in the temple of Whitlamites (no delphic oracles in that lot). But there it is again. The flaw in the diamond argument. It would be an exaggeration to present Rudd as a clone of Whitlam. The Prime Minister has always exhibited an interest in the economy at national and international levels.

Hmm, how to get around that one?

Well let's just remind everyone that under the careless, derelict Whitlam,  Commonwealth outlays blossomed, taxes soared, and the deficit spiralled out of control. At a time of an international downturn! 

Now let's remember that Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are all on record as being highly critical of the Whitlam government, but not the Ruddster. He's a follower of hagiographers, a spruiker for Whitlam's extraordinary legacy, a veritable Thucydides for our very own Pericles.

Yes, have no doubt that Rudd is an activist, piously championing education as if government had some role in it, when we all know it's best left to private schools (with Catholic schools to hand for poor tykes), funded by government to train young minds in preferred brands of private religions. Let a thousand educational voices bloom and contend, from scientologists to the Brethren to secular Islamic schools.

Now here's the funny thing for the commentariat. After rebuking sundry governments for way too much regulation, Henderson can bask in the current situation in Australia, because Australia's economy has been so well regulated. Like, you don't mean, gasp, government intervention!?

Huh? Well it's the ace of hearts played hard you see because Rudd is using global market failure to become an interventionist PM, playing an active role by embracing the biggest nation building project in Australia, thereby demonstrating his belief in government high up on a rope and without a safety net.

Feel like you've learnt anything about broadband, the merits or the disadvantages of the current plan, or anything about life in general, apart from Gerard Henderson being a desiccated coconut, a worthy admirer of John Howard, a long term denigrator of Whitlam way after everyone else has stopped caring, and a Polonius of the old school, who takes a very long time to say very little?

Perhaps instead you might care to read what Ziggy Switkowski, a former CEO of Telstra, has to say about the broadband plan and its financial implications, in Opportunity rides the super-highway.

Though he's been away from Telstra for some time now, Ziggy still knows where a lot of the bodies are buried in the beast, and he understands that if nothing else, the move was essential as a way of dragging broadband infrastructure away from the entrenched monopolists in that organisation, a move botched by previous Labor and Liberal governments.

If you understood anything about competition in the digital ether, you'd understand this is the first step, along with getting us out of the mind set that copper connections still have any kind of future.

Now comes the news that Telstra is open to having its wholesale and retail arms voluntarily separated - see Michael Sainsbury and Jennifer Hewett's Telstra open to break-up.

Lordly, lordy, hallelujah. With Sol going, he's not part of the committee organised by Telstra to come up with a new approach and to negotiate with the government. At last Donald McGauchie has had a reality check.

Sometimes it's easy to get distracted by the alleged total on the tape - the $43 billion is a shell game, and if Optus and Telstra were to roll in their fibre optical set ups in capital cities, things could start happening relatively quickly (most joyously and cheaply in all the most relevant marginal seats). 

As a counter-thrust to Telstra's relentless obduracy, the Rudd government's 'vision thing' counter-attack has been cunningly designed. 

The government's broadband strategy has always been made more difficult by the elephant in the room, which kept on playing hardball right up until Sol decided to take a walk. Now we'll start to see some changes amongst the key players, most particularly Telsta.

Malcolm Turnbull can jump up and down about the cost of Rudnet or Ruddstra, and Gerard Henderson can chip in with fond memories of the Whitlam era, when slagging off inept Labor government was like shooting Jim Cairns and Rex Connor ducks in a barrel. 

But something had to give in the broadband debate, and in particular Telstra had to be rolled, as it should have been long ago, and deserved to be after it tried to bowl underarm as a way of blocking the tender process. 

Now the real hardball negotiations can begin, and the real plan that will emerge from all the chin wagging might look different, though still enough the same to allow mighty claims of glory for the 'vision thing'.

Which brings me to one final observation - Henderson manages to write a full column ostensibly discussing broadband and the Rudd plan, and yet I can't find anywhere in his column any mention of Telstra. Somehow he manages to spend para after para dithering back in the Whitlam era, and about the risk of government intervention as a way of getting things done when government intervention had actually built, managed and buggered up the elephant residing in the bedroom. An impervious barrier to actual competition, of the free market kind reliably touted by the commentariat as a cure for all that ails ya.

It boggles the imagination that this is what is supposed to pass as informed comment, as opposed to bathetic dog whistling of a most rarefied kind.

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