Why Media Watch is wrong about journalists and Twitter

Australia’s most important watchdog on all matters media made a rare lapse last night. ABC’s Media Watch got its message badly wrong in a segment where they warned off journalists from making controversial statements on Twitter. Little-known journalist Adam Turner was the scapegoat new host Paul Barry (no relation) chose to pillory to prove a badly flawed point.

According to Turner’s bio he is an Australian freelance technology journalist who was formerly Melbourne deputy editor of Next and the business IT sections of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He left The Age in 2005 and has been a freelance journalist ever since providing “news, features, reviews, blogs and podcasts to various business and consumer technology publications.”

Turner is a regular user of Twitter with over 2,000 tweets to his name. Like many involved in the media he was online on 21 August as the federal election results were coming in. Turner was an avid contributor to the #ausvotes tag with at least 50 tweets on the day (including two mentioned by Media Watch that have since been deleted). Like most people in this particularly conversation, Turner had an opinion and was not afraid to share it on Twitter.

It was obvious Turner was no fan of Tony Abbott. There were tweets like “If Abbott wins, New Zealand will be swamped with boat people on Monday” and “If Abbott wins, helicopter waiting to fly Kerry O’Brien off the ABC roof as coalition forces close in”. His tweets were clearly partisan but hardly noteworthy. They were also little different to hundreds of other similar tweets that night from those supporting the left of centre parties.

Turner’s turning point came as Tony Abbott emerged to address his party and the country on live TV. According to the program transcript, Turner tweeted “Listen to this c——-er gloat when he hasn’t even won” which he followed shortly by “this a—hole is trying to make a victory speech, complete with cheersquad”. I suspect Turner spelt out the words cocksucker and arsehole in his tweets though I can’t be certain as they have been deleted. On the night they would have been lost in a swathe of tweets with the same hashtag, many of whom would have had much harsher words to say about Abbott, an extremely divisive public figure.

But someone had it in for Turner and informed the ABC. Media Watch made it seem like the pinnacle of investigative journalism tracking him down as Barry announced “I think we have our man”. All they did was count his number of followers (as if that had any meaning at all in this age of Twitter mass marketing) and then grab the text off his bio that I’ve reproduced above. Both the bio and the tweets are openly available to anyone who looks at Turner’s Twitter page or follows him. There was no suggestion Turner had anything to hide.

So where is the problem? It seems as if Media Watch wanted to save Turner from himself. “Luckily Turner’s not a political correspondent or he might now be unemployed,” Barry said. “But even so, why on earth did this seem like a good idea?” He compared Turner’s fate to that of Catherine Deveny who was sacked for breaching the taboo of discussing child sexuality with her tweet “I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”. Leaving aside the sanctimonious outcry from rival media, the furore ignores the fact The Age probably wanted to shaft the troublesome Deveny anyway. More importantly it fails to acknowledge her tweets had nothing to do with her work at The Age.

Similarly with Turner. What he got up to on election night with a few bourbons on board may or may not have been a good idea but it was hardly unethical. It also had absolutely nothing to do with his work. Yet Media Watch felt the need to ask The Age’s editor Paul Ramadge about his freelancer. Ramadge’s reply was succinct “[Adam Turner] has received an official first and final warning.” Media Watch’s verdict was that it was an “embarrassing mistake”. Neither Barry nor his team seemed to understand the openness and conversation that underpins social media tools like Twitter.

This became blatantly apparent with Media Watch’s second target in the same segment. ABC WA journalist Geoff Hutchison was forced to delete his Twitter account after he too had a go at Tony Abbott during a Q&A program in the week before the election. Hutchison tweeted “Tony, why are you frightened of intercourse with Julia? Is it because we will be watching and measuring?”

This sarcastic offering offended someone enough to contact ABC management who ordered him to delete his account. ABC Radio spokesman Warwick Tiernan said the comments had breached the ABC’s social media policy. “Geoff’s comments, posted on a personal Twitter account, do not meet ABC social media guidelines and do not represent the views of the ABC,” he said.

Media Watch claimed the problem with Hutchison’s tweets was it interfered with his job which to be objective. Under ABC’s social media rules staff are directed not to mix “the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute” and not imply the ABC endorses personal views. But Hutchison was not working when he attacked Abbott, he was most likely at home on the couch. No reasonable person could imagine his personal comments could bring the ABC into disrepute. It is also an insult to Hutchison to think he could not be professional enough to leave his personal opinions to one side when interviewing politicians.

Media Watch inadvertently let slip the real reason why he was forced to take the punishment of deleting the account. “Stupid comments like that make it harder for him to do that job properly… and they’re a gift to the ABC’s critics.” What Barry is really saying is that this has nothing to do with left-wingers putting their gripes on the Internet and everything to do with not giving ABC’s right-wing enemies the opportunity to make tired claims about bias.

Typically Andrew Bolt (who like Hutchison is an able interviewer of politicians despite his own well-known political biases) was quickest off the mark lumping Turner and Hutchison together in a rogue’s gallery with Deveny, Marieke Hardy and Daniel Burt. “Yes, only five,” Bolt admitted in his final sentence, “but all attacking from the Left, with the ABC and barbarians [Fairfax] strongly represented.” Bolt avoided drawing any conclusions from his post allowing his audience do the dirty work for him.

If Barry and his cohorts are frightened off by streams of invective from “ABC’s Critics” like Bolt and his audience then we really do have a problem. Silencing Turner and Hutchison achieves no purpose. We desperately need more robust views not less. We need to know what our politicians and our journalists think, not frighten them off into platitudes. Guiding the social media policy should be an underlying philosophy of publish and be damned. There will be those who will damn the ABC no matter what they do or what their policies say. Media Watch should be standing up to them not for them.

Government proving automatic for the people

Despite the fact a week has passed after the Australian election and there is no government, the sky has not yet fallen in. The two major parties more or less the same strength in parliament though the Aus Tories could still win 76-74 with the bush bloc (a gang of four not three). But as the bushies are realising, there is no good reason yet to sack the government. The rest of us are also finding out it does not matter yet who has the key to the Lodge.

Raymond Williams once said there were no masses just ways of seeing people as masses. But masses are useful constructs. In Australia they are the ways in which we govern our lives. The laws are still generally obeyed, the courts do their duty unimpeded and the health system is showing no more signs of collapse than usual. No one has stopped coming to work or school and very few protest in the streets. The media has kept publishing, though they and the markets were the only ones in any way agitated with the political outcome. People at home consume their media in the same detached way they consume their burger.

Despite the mcdonaldisation of the media, political stasis won’t last forever but for now it is re-assuring in some respect to see how unimportant politics is in everyday life. What the hung parliament is telling us is the choices we make to elect a government are small compared to our choices we make every minute of our lives in our jobs, in our relationships and in the haphazard of game of chance we encounter whenever something happens. We create our own politics to deal with all these realities of identity.

British writer Frank Furedi correctly called in his visit to Australia before the election. Furedi said he was struck by the depoliticised character of the election with no one with strong views on any of the so-called top issues except for hardened party activists. “Yet people were far from complacent, and they clearly wanted to improve their lives,” Furedi wrote. “What really seemed to preoccupy them was their economic security: jobs, high prices, their children’s future.”

Yet even Furedi had to concede it was an interesting election in the end. If we are no longer sure what parties stand for any more, we remain interested in the health of the broader polity. Julia Gillard is still officially the Prime Minister but the Prime Minister’s site acknowledges the caretaker period has not ended. The transcript of the PM’s media conference today on the Labor site shows a steely Gillard is still very much in the hot seat.

Rob Oakeshott is one of the independents she must deal with and he has proposed a unity cabinet. This is exactly what Australia needs for the next ten years if it is serious about tackling climate change, a topic close to Oakeshott’s heart. “It is a cheeky option, and it’s not for me to pick cabinets, [but] Malcolm Turnbull in a Julia Gillard government or Kevin Rudd as foreign minister in a Tony Abbott government?” he said. “Here is a moment when we can explore the edges and explore outside the box.” Needless to say he was put back in his box his plan was “shott down” in flames. As politicians and the media remind him, power is not for sharing in this country.

Yet maybe the paradigm of adversarial politics is changing after all. In the vacuum of ideas Labor and Liberal have more in common that what divides them. The Independents have been a refreshing shot in the arm. For Gillard, the bush bloc may even be easier to deal with than the so-called “faceless men” of Labor politics. It might just be the “Real Julia” can face a minority government future with more confidence than if she was handled the poisoned chalice of outright victory.

Zuma strengthens South African alliance with China

South African President Jacob Zuma is looking for ways to cut his country’s trade deficit with its largest partner as he begins a three day visit to China. Last year South Africa ran a $2.7 billion trade deficit with China and Zuma’s Trade Minister explained why in a press conference on arrival in Beijing today. “In South Africa’s export market to China there is a preponderance of primary products, and in our imports from China there is a preponderance of value-added goods,” he said. Davies and his boss Zuma want Chinese manufacturers of power equipment, railway cars, solar water heaters and vehicles to consider setting up factories in South Africa.

The relationship between the two countries is growing in importance as China continues its push for influence across the continent of Africa. In the first six months of 2010, there was $10.8 billion trade between the two countries almost half as much again as the same period last year. Zuma will hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing and will also meet Premier Wen Jiabao and tour the World Expo site in Shanghai. Zuma will be accompanied by an enormous delegation of 300 ministers and businesspeople as the Africans aim to emulate the Chinese growth rate.

Zuma expects to sign a number of agreements and memorandums of understanding during the visit. These include a declaration on the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and MOUs on co-operation in the fields of geology and mineral resources, environment management, transport and railways. There will also be a business seminar in Beijing with over 200 South African business leaders and entrepreneurs to further enhance and strengthen economic co-operation. The visit will conclude on Thursday when Zuma views the South African Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

The relationship between the two countries is one of the fastest growing in the world. The countries did not re-establish relations after the end of apartheid until 1998 but within 11 years China had overtaken the US to become SA’s largest exporter and importer of goods and services. Zuma has called the trip “crucial” with China National Nuclear Corp in talks to build a nuclear power plant in South Africa. The relationship is important to China too which imports SA iron ore, iron and steel to fuel its growing economy. Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said his government would encourage domestic companies to invest in South Africa’s mining and resources sector.

According to Chinese State news agency Xinhua, Zuma and Jintao signed a Beijing Declaration in the Great Hall of the People earlier today. The declaration contained 38 bilateral cooperation agreements, including political dialogues, trade, investment, mineral exploration and agriculture to joint efforts in the UN and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The declaration also promised to strengthen cooperation between the two nations in political and regional affairs by “establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership based on equality, mutual benefit and common development”.

Zuma’s China trip is a welcome relief as he faces mounting problems at home, with more than a million public sector workers striking. The success of the World Cup is a distant glow as a strike by more than a million public sector workers enters its second week. Strikers include teachers, healthcare workers, police, customs officials and clerks who are seeking pay raises of more than double the inflation rate. The strike is paralysing the economy and police have used rubber bullets to disperse angry protesters on the streets. Unions are pressing for a settlement but Zuma said he will not negotiate until he returns from China.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the health of South Africa’s economy is direct tied to China whose demand for SA resources is keeping the rand high. The currency’s strength continues despite the strikes and persistently high unemployment and public-sector strikes. The public sector unions were crucial in getting Zuma the top job so it is likely he will meet their demands. This will push South Africa’s already high inflation rate to well over 5 percent by year’s end, and lead to another cycle of pay demands next year. The 68-year-old president will need all the help he can get from his new Chinese alliances.

Australian Academy of Science on the science of climate change

In all the frenzy of the last week of a Federal election campaign, a new report from the Australian Academy of Science flew mostly under the radar. The 24-page report, The Science of Climate Change, Questions and Answers is a concise and readable interdisciplinary look at the factors that are impacting climate change. The report acknowledges the difficulty of bringing the different components of the complex climate system together in one model. Yet considerable progress has been made in this direction, the AAS said, and climate change should not be beyond public understanding.

The document’s science is based on four major lines of evidence: the known physical principles of greenhouse gases, the record of the distant past, measurements from the last century, and climate models that use the other three lines of evidence. These models are currently predicting a rise of between 2 and 7°C on pre-industrial levels depending on “depending on future greenhouse gas emissions and on the ways that models represent the sensitivity of climate to small disturbances.”

Even at the 2°C lower end, we can expect nasty repercussions in the form of heatwaves, higher global average rainfall, impacts to marine biodiversity and rising sea levels. But it is at the 7°C end where things get really nasty. All of the 2°C changes will be magnified to a point where the scientists coolly say “such a large and rapid change in climate would likely be beyond the adaptive capacity of many societies and species.”

The report is at pains to show we are not in some natural cycle of warming. Nothing in the last 2,000 years is like the last 100 and if we add another 2-7 degrees it will be like nothing in the last 10,000 years. Data over a million years show Earth’s surface has risen and fallen by about 5°C, through 10 major ice age cycles in that time. As well, feedbacks in the glacial cycle mean there are strong links between global temperature, atmospheric water vapour, polar ice caps and greenhouse gases. In the past million years, the disturbances to the cycle have come from fluctuations in Earth’s solar orbit. In modern times it is human emissions affecting greenhouse gases which reinforce change in the temperature, water vapour and ice caps. Even small influences can amplify into large changes.

The pace of change is also picking up. Average temperatures have increased over the 100 years to 2009 by more than 0.7°C. However the rates of observed near-surface warming has increased since the mid-1970s with the global land surface warming at double the rate of the ocean surface. There has been widespread melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps, particularly noticeable since the 1990s. The Greenland ice sheet and West Antarctica are also losing ice. Ocean levels are now more than 20 cm higher than in 1870.

Australia is not immune to these global trends. Here the average surface temperature has increased by 0.7°C in half a century. There is a continent-wide average increase in the frequency of extremely hot days and a decrease in the frequency of cold days. Rainfall changes are less consistent though it is noticeably declining in southwest Western Australia and the southeast coast. In the oceans, there has been a there has been a southward shift of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and sea level has risen at a rate of about 1.2 mm per year since 1920, resulting in more frequent coastal inundation events.

Humans are the cause of the problem. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide began to rise two to three hundred years ago at the start of industrialisation and accelerated rapidly in the 20th century. The problem is worsening in the 21st century. From 2000 to 2007 emissions grew by 3.5 percent per year, exceeding almost all assumed scenarios generated in the late 1990s. Deforestation, fossil fuel burning, other industrial sources such as cement production all contribute. Only 45 percent ends up as atmospheric CO2. 30 percent is swallowed by increased plant growth and another quarter is making seawater more acidic.

If “business as usual” levels of emissions continue, the AAS is tipping a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels by 2050, and possibly a tripling by 2100. This would produce a warming of around 4.5°C (plus or minus 2.5) to 2100. What this means to climate and sea levels is at best educated guesswork, but all the scenarios put forward are unremittingly gloomy. “The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia,” concluded the report, “the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation or ice sheet stability.”

Despite or perhaps because of its stark message, the report got short shrift in the media. In the few stories that were there, the message was diluted. The denialist-leaning News Limited muddied its coverage with an unrelated story about New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research which faces a legal challenge by sceptics group Climate Science Coalition. The Sydney Morning Herald did look at the report in more detail but preferred to highlight there were “still scientific uncertainties about some of the details of climate change”.

The conclusion of the report itself should be a surprise to no-one: greenhouse gases from human activities are the main cause of temperature increases for the last 100 years and if nothing is done, they will continue to increase significantly. Yet the way the AAS document is reported continues to fly in the face of such evidence. The SMH said the report “unambiguously” supported the conclusion that a continued reliance on fossil fuels would lead to a warmer world while a similar thing happened over at the ABC with their headline about climate change “misinformation”. Subeditors will say that putting words like unambiguously and misinformation in quotes is done to show who is using the words. But the effect is the opposite: the quotes undermine the words, causing the reader to doubt the source. The media is doing a great disservice to climate change science by the way it reports the issues and an even greater one by the way it doesn’t.

Australian hung parliament – lessons from 1940

Australia has woken up today to the reality of its first hung parliament in 70 years. The 21 August 2010 election has striking similarities with its 21 September 1940 forebear. Like now, Australia was involved in what was still a faraway war which had bipartisan support. Like now Australia had a first term government (with Menzies leading the then United Australia Party) and like now it had an insipid election campaign where Menzies refused to make any specific promises (though his opponent John Curtin was more forthcoming).

In 1940 Menzies and his Coalition partners dropped eight seats to Labor and its allies leaving it with 36 out of 74 seats. It turned to two Victorian independents to keep them in power. Arthur Coles is best remembered these days as one of the founders of Australia’s second largest retail group. But he was also Mayor of Melbourne in the 1930s and he gave that up to fight for, and win, the seat of Henty in 1940. Alexander Wilson meanwhile, was a member of the Northern Irish aristocracy who joined the Australian squattocracy when he moved to Victoria to become a wheat grower. He ran as an independent in 1937 and held on three years later.

Both Coles and Wilson were natural fits for the conservative side of politics and they gave their support to the UAP. With the war worsening in Europe, Menzies spent most of 1941 in London arguing strategy with Churchill. But his position was worsening at home. He was forced to resign in favour of Country Party leader Arthur Fadden. Neither Coles nor Wilson had much empathy with Fadden’s agrarian-socialist philosophy and were both upset at Menzies’ overthrow. They voted against his budget causing the Government to resign in October 1941. After pressure from the Governor General Gowrie, the independents agreed to support a Curtin ministry and the Labor Government muddled through to 1943 when they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Conservatives.

It is difficult to say what lessons, if any, there are from the 1940 experience other than the fact that it is possible to avoid an election for three years despite a lack of a majority. The three key independents in 2010, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor, would all seem to have impeccable conservative records that make them an ideal fit to back Tony Abbott as the next prime minister. Indeed as an independent state MP in 1991 Windsor kept Liberal leader Nick Greiner in power.

But as I wrote last night there is no guarantee it will happen this time.

Both Katter and Windsor have a lot of unfinished business with former colleagues in the National Party. Both despise Barnaby Joyce and Katter said Nationals leader Warren Truss “attacked me personally last night”. Both have also support the NBN rollout, which the Coalition has rejected on the philosophical grounds it is owned by the Government. Katter however, said there is no alternative. “A privatised broadband, I mean, please, don’t even talk about it, privatised Telstra has been absolutely disastrous for rural Australia,” he said.

Oakeshott meanwhile has said a key policy of any government should be an ETS – putting him at clear odds with the Abbott agenda. He called climate change a top priority. “I would personally say, let’s go back to the Garnaut report and try and get something through based on that,” Oakeshott said today. “The template is there, stick to the script, keep it simple.”

Beyond that Oakeshott said he wanted a “fairer go” for regional and rural Australia and it is safe to say there will be a major focus on regional and rural issues by whatever party forms the next government. Given what the Independents are saying today, there is no reason why Labor cannot be that Government. But as the Menzies experience shows – another brutal assassination of a leader would be their death knell.

Australian election 2010 (End of Part 1)

The people of Australia have spoken and delivered a very bloody nose to Julia Gillard’s Labor Government today. Whether the blow is enough to knock it out remains to be seen. With three seats out of 150 still in doubt at the time of writing the likely make-up of Australia’s next parliament has the Coalition with 74 seats and Labor with 71 seats. As well there are 3 ex-Nationals independents, a Green and ex-Green. Voting purely along a likely left-right axis, that makes it 77-73 to Abbott and in theory enough to rule, especially if he can convince one of the independents to be the Speaker.

But his party falls short of an outright majority so Abbott cannot yet stake his claim to be Prime Minister. Australia is governed by the Westminster Convention even if these conventions can sometimes prove tenuous just as when it was stretched to breaking point in 1975. In his post-election speech Abbott offered “the Australian people” his team as an alternative “stable government”. But as Abbott well knows, it’s out of their hands right now. Gillard refused to concede tonight and remains Prime Minister. The Governor General Quentin Bryce (a Labor appointee) will have to offer her the first right of refusal to gain “the confidence” of the Lower House.

Gillard will probably accept and attempt to manage a minority government. This will be at best a short-term manoeuvre to gain time to fight another election. She might be able to rule for a while with the tacit support of the Independents if she puts forward legislation that will get what they want for their constituents. After all, this dull election campaign has proven one thing. With the exception of the NBN and the ETS (neither of which will exist much before 2013) there is little differentiation between the parties. Yet a change of government is a big thing and it might be easiest to get what you want from the party already in power. As Tony Windsor said tonight “the most important issue here is stability of governance”. They may find the acceleration of the NBN in their areas an acceptable price of support.

Gillard can rule with the independents and Greens if she can manage the difficult balancing of rural interests with environment concerns. The ETS delay may yet prove convenient. She has no major agenda that she needs to push through in the next few months. A few anodyne bills while the parties squabble through to February may be what she needs. And then with Latham and Rudd just a bad memory they get back the six or so seats they need to form outright government.

But if the independents decide to play a bigger game then Gillard is in trouble. If they publicly come out and say they will support Tony Abbott for three years as the next prime minister than she will have to resign.

If that happens, Labor has no one to blame but itself. For two and a half years of government Kevin Rudd and his party enjoyed stratospheric polls as people enjoyed the change from Howards End and the impressive weathering of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile the Liberals recycled their leaders until it found one with the stomach to take the fight to the Government.

When the polls finally levelled as they normally do closer to an election, Labor panicked and sacked the boss. Australians didn’t like being told their Prime Minister was being removed without their say so and Queensland particularly resented losing their man. The hope that Gillard as a woman would affect the female vote was possibly countered by many men voting Abbott. If people weren’t sure the “mad monk” should be Prime Minister, there was a lot who didn’t like one being an “atheist antichrist” either.

The make-up of the Senate is more assured at this stage. The Greens had a great result electing senators in all six seats. With the Coalition on 34 and Labor on 31, the Greens now have a clear balance of power with 9 seats. Allied to Bandt’s stunning and historic lower house victory in Melbourne, and former Green Andrew Wilkie’s likely win in Denison this is a watershed election for the environmental movement who must now move deeply inside the tent.

A jaded electorate won’t take kindly to be sent back to the polls in the next few months. Who they blame for that will be whoever is seen as the most obstructionist in the negotiations to come. The animus of the party leaders remains crucial. Abbott is assured and now very confident as Liberal leader but still has obvious flaws and a fractured power base. Turnbull is still waiting in the wings to pounce again.

The Labor Government has no obvious candidate out there to replace Gillard (other than Rudd) and our first female Prime Minister may yet grow in the role that Rudd squandered. But the next few months are critical. If she can learn to negotiate with the Greens without needling Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter, a saner long-term Australian policy to the overwhelming problem of climate change may yet emerge from the chaos of representative democracy. Otherwise Gillard’s bloody nose will be the least of our problems.

Labor and Liberal’s battle of the broadband

Probably much to Labor’s own relief, its problematic Internet filtering policy appears dead in the water. A policy pursued with vigour during the early days of the Rudd administration, it was deferred to 2011 last month before being delivered the coup de grace in recent times with both the Liberals and Greens coming out in opposition to it. Labor haven’t yet formally cut it loose but it is merely a matter of time, probably around 1 July 2011 when the buffoonish pro-filter Family First Senator Steve Fielding is finally turfed out of a parliamentary position that squalid Labor backroom tactics got him into in the first place.

If there is a communications policy fight in this election it is now over how broadband will be delivered to the home in the years to come. The centrepiece of Labor’s policy is the National Broadband Network. The ambitious NBN is Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project and will involve the laying of fibre optic cabling to Australian homes, schools and businesses. It will be capable of delivering speeds of 100 megabits per second which is up to 100 times faster than most current speeds. The NBN will reach 93 percent of the Australian population with the remaining premises connected via a combination of next generation high speed wireless and satellite technologies delivering broadband at the much lower speed of 12 Mbps.

The work (both fibre optic and wireless/satellite) has already started under the auspices of the new NBN Co under the leadership of former Alcatel boss Mike Quigley. Quigley was chosen for his American experience developing and integrating large scale Fibre-To-The-Premise and Fibre-To-The-Node implementations for US telecommunication carriers.

Most of our telecommunications network is still copper based. This is ageing technology that is primarily responsible for Australia’s slow Internet response times. FTTP involves laying optical fibre from a central location right to the home or business. While it could potentially deliver broadband at speeds of up to 100Mbps, the actual speed is determined by the size of the Passive Optical Network.

The technology is capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 2.5Gbps; however this amount is divided by the number of termination points on the PON to determine the actual bandwidth to each end point. FTTN is a cheaper option (and was Labor’s policy until 2007). In this case fibre is terminated in a street cabinet up to several kilometres away from the customer premises, with the final connection being copper. Customers typically connect using traditional coaxial cable or twisted pair wiring, both of which are 19th century technologies.

The current Labor Government is going with the FTTP option. FTTP is expensive and is one of the reasons the NBN is likely to cost in excess of $43 billion (though this is likely to be substantially reduced now that Telstra are inside the tent) with a rollout period of eight years. Phase 1 has already begun in Tasmania with 1,200km of cable laid and the first services have been switched on in the north-east communities of Midway Point, Smithton and Scottsdale.

In these towns the ISPs iiNet, Internode and iPrimus are offering 25Mbps for $29.95 and 100 Mbps for $59.95 per month. Labor is also addressing “regional blackspots” on the mainland with 6,000 km of new, competitive fibre optic backbone links are being rolled out in regional Australia. NBN boss Mike Quigley is now saying that 1000 Mbps plans may also be available for wholesale. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said at this speed a school could download a hi-def documentary in 20 seconds rather than the five hours it takes now.

The Liberals meanwhile agree Australia needs fast, reliable and affordable broadband services but differs on the technology it wants to use to provide it. It says the NBN Co will be a taxpayer funded ‘white elephant’ when it is completed in eight years time, does not deliver lower prices, and gives no priority to those who do not currently get an adequate service. They will cancel the NBN and instead deliver a 13 point plan they say will “encourage competition and ensure services reach all Australians.”

Their plan is significantly cheaper than Labor’s at $6 billion and will cover more of the population at 97 percent and will be completed quicker too. However they will only commit to offering 12 Mbps relying heavily on wireless technologies. They will provide $2.75 billion for an open access, fibre-optic backhaul network which connects the big cities to compete with Telstra, $2 billion for blackspots in outer metro and regional areas, $750 million for fixed broadband optimisation on older exchanges and funding for satellite serves for the outlying 3 percent.

The response from experts in the communications field has been mixed. Crikey’s tech writer Stilgherrian said the difference between the two policies as much about ideology, vision and political rhetoric as technological choice. He said the Coalition’s saves money now, but asks “is it merely delaying the inevitable big spend?” However ZDNet reports some analysts saying the Liberal’s plan could potentially be safer, more flexible and “give more bang for your buck”.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adam Turner said the Liberal’s plans were stop-gap measures while he called the NBN “future-proof”. The Internet Industry Association has also come out in favour of the NBN saying “the key to Australia’s broadband future is speed.” However Commsday CEO Grahame Lynch in The Australian slammed the NBN as “the world’s most generous telecom industry welfare scheme”.

The attitudes of the Greens in the Senate will be crucial to deciding the outcome of telecommunications policy regardless of which sides wins the election. The Greens policy is strangely silent on the position of the NBN. However their ICT spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam said the NBN should go ahead, with priority for communities in regional areas. “It should absolutely stay in public hands so that we don’t see another repeat of the debacle that followed the privatisation of Telstra,” he said. The Greens are also cold on the Coalition’s alternative with Ludlam calling it “a real patchwork of service delivery.”