Tom Burton: what we know about Malcolm Turnbull

By Tom Burton

Tuesday September 15, 2015

If you want an insight on new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, consider his role as Communications Minister.

As far as style goes, it is always the Malcolm show, but if there has been any change over the last years, it is a willingness to seek and take advice from anyone he thinks has a good idea. That could be one of the international digirati he loves to mix with, or a young entrepreneur from Sydney’s fishburners start-up community.

But for substance, in one sentence: a determination to bring robust modern thinking to resolve and rethink the nation’s challenges and to aggressively seize the opportunities of the digital era.

Throughout his large sprawling portfolio he was known as the executive chair, a constant presence, quick to txt (or Whatsapp) and ready to take on his officials when he thought their work inferior. Just ask ABC chief, Mark Scott, whom Turnbull often publicly jammed for basic quality control failures.

That he was doing it to defend the ABC against the huns of the right was often lost in the noise and juvenilism that has become so part of today’s media.

Yesterday he cited two of his biggest communication challenges, NBN and Australia Post, as examples of his “open” approach to big problems.

NBN Co. had dropped the ball on the fibre rollout and in hindsight it was a poor decision to hand such a massive and complicated technology rollout to a government start-up, manned by technology vendors, rather than people with real experience building and running networks (aka Telstra).

Post is a different problem. Its massive fixed delivery network is going the way of Kodak and for the first time for over forty years, Post will not make a profit.

Both are examples of digital disruption and in each case, he brought in a gaggle of consultants — Turnbull deeply respects well-considered strategic advice — to first deeply analyse and then frame up the issues. As much information as possible was made public, followed by a period of engagement ahead of final decisions.

In the case of Post the price of stamps is being sharply ramped up and the service levels reduced to try and buy time as Post seeks to remake itself. All without a murmur. Turnbull is a reformer, but he is not a revolutionary. The tough view on Post would be to sell it while it has some value, but Turnbull took the more expedient position to maintain the iconic treasure on Australia’s main streets.

NBN was another example of managed change. Turnbull was heavily influenced by the strategy of US telco giant AT&T, which eschewed the fibre rollout of its competitor Verizon and instead rolled fibre to the node, leaving the copper network to carry the signal to the home. Like Post, this was essentially a more cautious option than the all-fibre network Labor and many in the tech community thought best.

The imminent arrival of ubiquitous prime time video streaming (eg Netflix) will prove if this was a good call, technically and economically. But it was probably under the hood where the big changes came, with a complete overhaul of NBN Co, openly appointing his trusted business colleagues and former tech partners.

A network of his own kind

Perhaps unlike any former Prime Minister since Bob Hawke, Turnbull brings to the Prime Ministerial office real outside world experience, and more importantly, deep external relationships. For Canberra’s traditionally insular bureaucracy, this will mean sharing the advisory role with outsiders.

Witness his appointment of new Digital Transformation Office chief Paul Shetler. A fast talking, confident American, Shetler has strong views about the poor shape of the Commonwealth’s digital front window and is not spending a lot of time worrying about bureaucratic niceties. Start small, build fast and iterate wildly is his mantra. With Turnbull in the top office, expect to see the DTO moved front and centre in the new government (ie into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet).

Digital could be Turnbull’s signature play. Shetler and his digital team will drive much of the front-end make over — and in so doing free up the massive resources currently devoted to the many old school customer care systems now embedded in many agencies.

But it will be the data piece that threatens to completely remake the architecture of government and public administration.

The current debate in Canberra around data is essentially about releasing it and letting the flowers bloom. But when considered strategically, data quickly pushes governments to think and act like a platform — a giant app store, if you like — where services as varied as broadcasting, cyber safety, disability provision, transport, teaching and healthcare are provided by non-government actors, often in a virtualised form.

This fundamentally changes the role of government to one where it sets out its requirements and commissions consumer-facing corporates and NGOs to provide the front-end service.

This system-wide view is something that intrigues Turnbull, most notably how it opens real opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovation. Turnbull is personally obsessed with the need to build a robust entrepreneurial economy as an antidote to the oligopolistic corporate culture he argues characterises much of Australia’s economy.

As such he is not a big fan of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which in Turnbull’s mind mismanaged telco network pricing over a decade and then greenlighted the all-fibre NBN build.

Turnbull is essentially a deregulationist, although again don’t expect a lowering of all the walls. The out-of-date media ownership rules will go, but local content quotas and sports anti-siphoning rules will stay. The latter is what irks Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — its subsidiary Foxtel is heavily constrained by these rules — and watching how Turnbull and Murdoch play will be intriguing.

Turnbull has been as big a player of the press gallery favourites game as any, and if there was one contribution to restoring a more normal public debate it would be to engage equitably and fairly with the media — in all its modernity and occasional madness. In his younger days Turnbull was very thin skinned, but has mellowed and become better at coping with the never-ending bumps of public life.

PM for the empowered citizen

Which comes to the final observation. Turnbull is a digital native — albeit the personal brand version — and unlike his predecessor, has a solid understanding and feel for the world of digital engagement.

Governments around the world are struggling to come to terms with the new order of the empowered citizen — where, armed with a smart phone, you can be a Senator representing a motorists’ party.

To the outsider this world seems chaotic and uncontrolled, which is partly true — but mostly wrong. Government, with its immense resources and authority, can be a savvy player in this arena, but only if it acts as a genuine participant, rather than the organiser of the system.

To do this requires genuine change and a commitment to being open and authentic, which is antithetical to how many Canberra officials are bred and trained. Turnbull is a big fan of the way Kiwi PM John Key has driven reform. In New Zealand, cabinet documents are now released six weeks after a decision. In Canberra it is 30 years, and it is this deep cultural change that Turnbull instinctively knows has to be challenged.

As anyone who has spent as much time in the digital space as Turnbull knows, we are entering a critical new phase of mega-disruption. When Turnbull talks of an agile Australia, he is not talking about simple nimbleness. The coming together of powerful cloud applications and storage, open source code, ubiquitous connectors that let systems easily talk to each other, and liberated data, are fundamentally changing how things get built. Think of this emerging industrialisation like Lego blocks and you see why experts say we are about to see a paradigm change in speed (10 to 20 times) and cost (downwards).

Turnbull is a huge optimist and while many are going to have their lives radically changed by this tsunami of technology — some five million jobs are predicted to disappear in the next 20 years — Turnbull’s excitement is how to position Australia to capture these opportunities.

Excitement is used quite deliberately. He is the first to admit he is quickly bored. How he handles the boredom of traditional government and its many arcane processes is to be seen.

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6 years ago

Good report and analysis, thanks Tom.

Michael Zerman Adelaide