Forum: Fibre plan a fine example of the politics of the 'wedge'

With its broadband plan, National moved on to its enemy's turf

The term “wedge” sprang to mind when I heard about National’s $1.5 billion fibre investment policy last week.

It’s not a term you hear often in New Zealand political discourse but is far more commonly used across the ditch. Maybe the word welled up so easily because I was sitting on the banks of the Yarra when I heard about National’s plan.

The wedge is a powerful device. Wikipedia defines it as “a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a ‘wedge’ in the support base of one political group”.

One of the reasons we don’t see many wedges in New Zealand is because our parties have been highly ideological for the past twenty years at least. Almost by definition, to create a wedge, you have to be capable and willing to move on to your enemy’s turf.

That’s exactly what National did last week with its broadband plan.

It follows a similarly aggressive, though probably less populist, wedge from Labour in March, which came in the form of that party’s Fast Forward commitment to primary sector research and development. That took Labour well into National’s heartland and National reacted then as Labour is reacting now — with a volley of criticism.

But the wedge will often win great headlines and change people’s perceptions of a political party. Take this one from the New Zealand Herald last week: “Plan shows National is more than just tax cuts”.

Herald writer Paula Oliver went on to say that if nothing else, “National leader John Key’s plan to put $1.5 billion of Government money into an ultra-fast broadband network marks another milestone in his party’s move away from the purist policies of its past.”

It also forced a somewhat more traditional National leadership rival, Bill English, to reverse his stated position on government investment. In doing that, Key has helped cement his own leadership and put his stamp on policy.

But one of the most curious things about the plan is the role of shadow communications minister Maurice Williamson. One rightwing blogger (www.whaleoil.co.nz/) made the following remark in a post about the policy: “Well done to Maurice Williamson who convinced the shadow cabinet and the caucus to run with this.”

I’ve been one of the people who quietly say that National simply can’t have Williamson, the face of light-handed regulation in the 1990s, as its potential future communications minister. If this policy really is his, however, then I might have to re-evaluate that.

There are still a lot of questions to be asked about National’s policy. And if there’s one thing that’s certain, in telecommunications you simply cannot be light on detail.

I would like to know, for instance, a lot more about the ownership and mission of the entity that will own this network. Will it be profit driven, for instance and what will be its success indicators? How do you stop this initiative from reinforcing the position of monopoly incumbents and are we just creating a new monopoly?

Rod Drury wrote on his blog that the plan “didn’t lock in a particular model — which at this stage is a good idea”. It is politically, but for New Zelaand’s sake we need to know a lot more. Either way, this new wedge is refreshing as much for what it says about our changing, even maturing, politics as for what it promises on broadband.

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