Aussie independents lean toward Labor on Crown fibre

Australia's knife-edge election could hang on horse-trading over Crown fibre - with the giant project looking set to survive either way.

All five swing MPs now being wooed by the major parties - including the three rural-conservatives - support the broadband plan.

The national broadband network (NBN) was one of the few substantive issues of the Australian election.

Labor pushed its $A43 billion plan ($A26 billion of which would be government funded), with prime minister Julia Gillard fronting at one of the earliest NBN earth-breaking ceremonies, in Townsville, just days before the ballot.

The Liberal-National coalition, led by Tony Abbott, touted its rival $A6.35 billion proposal, plus a promise to “recall” the structural separation of Telstra (a centrepiece of Labor’s plan).

Neither Labor nor the coalition won the 76 seats needed to form a standalone majority government in Australia’s 150-seat lower house (the Senate, which votes on a different cycle, is deadlocked 32-32, with the Greens holding the balance of power; the current Senate term is until June 2011).

Broadband in the balance
The balance of power now rests with one Greens MP (Adam Bandt), an ex-intelligence officer and former Green MP candidate turned independent (Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania); and three MPs (Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) who broke away from the conservative National party and are negotiating as a pack. (The vote in Mr Wilkie’s Hobart electorate was close, and could still go to Labor on a recount.)

Today, Sydney-based market analyst Paul Budde told NBR that the Greens had strongly supported the NBN, and Mr Wilkie’s home town is also solidly behind the project.

Mr Budde said that Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor are conservatives, they are all from rural areas where voters are keen to see better broadband.

Mr Oakeshott was quick to tell media that “you don’t need to be an Einstein to work out that telecommunications is one of the issues we will be talking about.” Mr Windsor has said he supports the NBN; Mr Katter that he is in favour of regional development, and government control of Telstra.

Australian media is now speculating that the Liberal-National coalition will revisit its opposition to the NBN as part of their bid to win over the rural trio.

For National, it won’t be a stretch. The rural-based party was always in favour of the NBN, according to CommsDay analysis, but fell into line on the issue behind the larger Liberal block.

Labor, meanwhile, wasted no time in pushing its NBN to Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor, releasing the specifics of Crown fibre roll-outs for each MP’s electorate yesterday.

“It looks like that the NBN will play a key role in the negotiations over the coming week - or weeks,” Mr Budde told NBR.

“So I’m still hopeful that we can find a compromise that will not kill the NBN.”

Labour may have to pull back on its $A43 billion mega-budget, and put less emphasis on urban homes; the coalition may have to open its chequebook.

“One thing is for sure: it will look different,” the analyst told NBR. “But there are possibilities to put the Liberal broadband policies in a national plan.”

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