Broadband’s losers could vote Labor out

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Broadband’s losers could vote Labor out.

Glenn Milne | April 27, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

THE political debate surrounding Kevin Rudd’s nationalised broadband plan so far has centred largely on its financial viability in times of stressed budgets and mounting public debt.

No doubt that debate that will be a factor at the next election. What’s not been focused on, however, has been the pure local politics of the broadband decision seen through the matrix of marginal electorates across the country. Viewed this way, when Rudd does go to the polls he could well be facing a broadband backlash with the targeted capacity to throw him out of office.

If Rudd hasn’t recognised his vulnerability of this front, the Coalition certainly has, and has begun to exploit it already.

Let’s begin at the beginning and go back to Rudd’s decision to junk his original election pledge on broadband, which relied on a private-sector rollout, now substituted with a much enlarged taxpayer-backed $43 billion public-private sector partnership.

Here’s the Prime Minister himself on the subject: “First of all, let’s be very clear about what we went to the last election with, which was to promise speeds of 12 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Australians and for the remaining 2 per cent, speeds somewhat slower than that delivered by what then existed by way of wireless and satellite technologies.”

“What are we now providing? We are now providing through fibre optic to the home, fibre optic to the business, speeds of 100 megabits per second for 90 per cent of the country. And for the rest of the country, speeds of 12 megabits per second using the next generation wireless and satellite technologies.”

Translated, Labor’s election plan treated 98 per cent of Australia equally and 2 per cent unequally. The revised version, while delivering faster cyber speeds to a reduced 90 per cent of the population, increases to 10 per cent the number of Australians who effectively will be treated as second-class citizens.

For those critical of Ruddband mark II as a back-of-the-envelope job whistled up to fill the hole of a botched tendering process attached to the original broadband promise, it is interesting to note that 90 per cent of Australians live in urban areas. The remaining 10 per cent are in rural and regional areas.

But in electoral terms they amount to a half-million people. And by all accounts they are very unhappy about the digital gap they see opening up between city and country.

It’s a long time since I worked on The Observer in Gladstone in Queensland, which I’m happy to report is still going strong. But it was an experience that taught me the power of local media, particularly when the outlet has a virtual monopoly.

And ever since Rudd announced his broadband blueprint the Gladstone Observers of Australia have been going hammer and tongs about the fundamental injustice of what Labor is planning.

That injustice has to be understood in technological terms. The political sting is that Rudd’s technological lower caste of 10 per cent are concentrated in 1000 towns across Australia with 1000 or less people.

Unlike their city cousins, who’ll get a much faster 100 megabit connection, they’ll get 12 megabits if they’re lucky. And if they’re unlucky they may have to remain reliant on creaky wireless or satellite. Under the national radar, this is an issue that is starting to get political traction in rural and regional Australia.

A snapshot of these second-class technology citizens of Australia (those who live in towns of less than 1000 people) is as follows. There are 1033 such locations. Broken down by state and territory the ACT has one such town, NSW 284, Victoria 202, Tasmania, 69, Queensland 207, South Australia 103, Western Australia 113, and the Northern Territory 52.

To say local newspapers have been venting the anger and frustration of voters in these areas is an understatement. Take the Tenterfield Star, in the marginal Labor seat of Richmond in NSW. It reported two weeks ago: “Villages and towns across the Tenterfield Shire have been left out of the federal Government’s national broadband scheme.”

After outlining the Rudd plan the Star continued: “This means that just under half of the Tenterfield Shire’s residents that live in areas such as Jennings, Deepwater, Emmaville, Drake, Urbenville and Mingoola will not be included on the national broadband network.”

Then there’s The Gympie Times, which focused on Nick Smith the principal of a local Raine and Horne real estate franchise. The Times reported Smith was “was fuming when he found out that he wouldn’t be able to get faster download speeds and Imbil and other smaller towns would miss out on Labor’s rollout”.

Such reports ought to be playing on the mind of Kevin Rudd who is wont to remind his caucus that Labor holds nine seats by a margin of less than 2 per cent. The electoral map shows you that at least 11 Labor-held marginal seats contain multiple population centres under 1000 people.

They are Dawson, Eden-Monaro, Robertson, Ballarat, Bass, Franklin, Blaire, Braddon, Capricornia, Corangamite, Bendigo and others.

Even Julia Gillard’s seat has towns that are likely to miss out. The bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, now held by Labor’s Mike Kelly has 20 of these centres.

The Coalition is already in the field exploiting what it reports as this “polarising issue”. The Opposition is devising a targeted strategy that will tell people how Labor is spending $43 billion to widen the digital divide. Brochures, mail-outs, door-knocking, newsletters and grassroots campaigning are planned.

Households will be asked: “Back in 2007 Kevin Rudd promised you a new high-speed broadband connection; have you received yours yet?”

Says one Coalition strategist: “Labor has given us a free kick by basically handing us a list of everyone who will miss out.”

“Rudd’s going to have MPs pleading for towns in their electorates to be factored in,” another said.

In fact, that process has begun already. In Canberra, ALP senator Kate Lundy has been fighting off Opposition attacks that virtual outer suburbs of the national capital, such as Hall and Tharwa – a half-hour from the Lodge – will miss out on faster city broadband speeds under Rudd’s plan.

She says she’ll be knocking on the Prime Minister’s door to have them included. As the electoral contest inevitably tightens, Lundy may only be the first of many Labor MPs in a long line.

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