Sky News Australian Agenda Malcolm Turnbull 17 March 2013

Interview with Malcolm Turnbull Australian Agenda program, 17 March 2013

Peter van Onselen: We are joined here in the studio by shadow communications spokesperson, Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull, thanks for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull: Good to be here.

Peter van Onselen: Last night there was footage that came out about Kevin Rudd, we're going to talk about media reform in detail, but just quickly, there was footage of Kevin Rudd jokingly saying "I challenge", and then he moved and talked about Liberals instead rather than anything to do with the Labor Party. It was in the context of a speech around St Patrick's Day. He always seems to pop up at the wrong time for Julia Gillard and cause a bit of trouble, doesn't he?

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Malcolm Turnbull: I think he's having a lot of fun. But, you know, you're entitled to have fun on St Patrick's Day.

Peter van Onselen: One other issue before we move to media reform, this morning Tony Abbott called a press conference which started or was due to start at 8:30 a.m. We've got the footage of the press conference release that went out just this morning just before we came on air. Unfortunate coincidence, given that we're meant to be talking in detail here with you about media reform.

Malcolm Turnbull: Well I - I've got no idea - I don't know what your point is.

Peter van Onselen: My point is just that the leaders' office is so good at co-ordinating Sunday mornings yet they've unfortunately coordinated that the Opposition Leader is doing a press conference at the same time that we're trying to have a detailed discussion about media reform with you.

Malcolm Turnbull: I was talking to Tony about this program at 7:30, so he was well aware that it's going on and I'm sure that if he misses us live he'll catch us when we replay.

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Peter van Onselen: Let's get into the media reform questions, Mr Turnbull. How likely do you think it is that this reform package will be successful getting at through the parliament, given that Senator Conroy has made it clear that he's not willing to even entertain amending it?

Malcolm Turnbull: It will certainly get through the Senate, because I suspect the Greens will support it come what may. In the House Rob Oakeshott's obviously taken great offence at the unseemly haste with which it's been pushed through the parliament. Andrew Wilkie has expressed a lot of reservations about it. I haven't spoken to the other independents, but I think it's quite possible it won't get through the House. The Government has - this has been a shocking shambles of an exercise. Whatever your views are it is a very big deal to involve the Government or a government official in regulating the content of newspapers for the first time in our peacetime history. This is a huge step; there's no question about that.

So to present that there, rush it through cabinet, it only went to cabinet in a technical way, it wasn't properly debated or considered at cabinet as we know, and then to say to the parliament "you've got four sitting days to deal with it or the whole thing's off" is just treating the people of Australia and the Parliament that represents them with complete contempt. And you have to ask yourself, is Conroy doing this to design it to fail? Is he seeking to embarrass the Prime Minister? It's hard to find a rational explanation for his conduct.

Peter van Onselen:
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There has been a lot of speculation in the media about what is behind this, because he's known to be one of the Prime Minister's close supporters but at the same time as that there is speculation about whether this was about a bit of red meat for the caucus not expecting it to get through. Or does he himself feel so passionate about those reforms that he's trying to get them through as quickly as possible before the Government perhaps finds itself in more trouble come June. What is your view on that?

Malcolm Turnbull: I think if Conroy's a great ally of the Prime Minister he's one of those friends that says if you have friends like that you don't need enemies. It's catastrophic. He's got the entire media sector offside. On the television side of the reforms he's offering a 50% cut in licence fees in return for increased Australian content, you know, and recognising the more difficult competitive environment that free-to-air television has now days of course. But by bundling it all up with this new public interest media advocate, this new bureaucrat overseeing the content of newspapers, of course he's managed to get Kerry Stokes offside who owns the Seven Network as well as the 'The West Australian' newspaper. You really have to ask yourself, how incompetent is this guy? He cannot sell a 50% licence fee cut to a television station proprietor. Speaking of my old boss Sam Chisholm used to say of incapable salesmen, you know, they couldn't sell fresh fish to starving seals. Well there is nobody of whom you could say that more accurately than Stephen Conroy.

Paul Kelly: At the heart of this package is a deep concern about the concentration of media ownership. What's your view about this? Do you see this as a particular problem?

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Malcolm Turnbull: Well, no, certainly not as big a problem - not as big an issue as it used to be. And the Labor Party, Paul, is utterly hypercritical about this. As we all remember, the domination, the big share, 70%-plus share of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation that News Limited has came about when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating gave FIRB approval to allow Rupert Murdoch's News Limited to buy the Herald and Weekly Times Group in 1986, and that's how they got the Melbourne 'Herald' and the 'Courier Mail' and Adelaide 'Advertiser' and lots of other newspapers. And that's what created the socalled Murdoch dominance. Now that dominance of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation is still there but newspapers are a much smaller slice of the media pie now than they were in the mid 1980s because of the advent of paid television, because of more television channels in the free-to-air spectrum and of course above all because of the internet and social media.

I mean people are now multi-sourcing. They're getting their news from more sources than they have ever done before. So the influence of any one particular proprietor is less than it has ever been. I find Senator Conroy's position quite absurd. He's saying Murdoch's concentration of ownership is too high, but of course it was enabled by the Labor Party in the first place, and yet that concentration of ownership is less now than it has ever been. Not because there has been a lot of bunch of newspapers closed or sold, but because the pie, the media and news information pie, has got so much bigger. So what's the explanation? The only rationale you can see for it is a vindictive whack at News Limited because he doesn't like getting a shellacking in the News Limited tabloids.

Paul Kelly:

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Let's go to the public interest test. The public interest test is fundamental to this package. Do you oppose a public interest test in principal or do you just think this one's no good?

Malcolm Turnbull: I oppose it absolutely in principal.

Paul Kelly: Why is that?

Malcolm Turnbull: Because it's meaningless, right. What is in the public interest, every member of the public will have a different view of what the public interest is. When politicians talk about having a public interest test, particularly in something as sensitive as media acquisitions, that means a political interest test. Now what is the issue? Is the issue concentration of ownership and maintaining diversity of voice, which is what they say it is? Well, I made my point earlier about what's happened there. But you've already got the ACCC, the competition regulator, that has got longstanding legislation that prevents and enables it to prevent acquisitions that would reduce competition in the marketplace. Of course that's why Kerry Stokes was unable to buy into Fox recently. If you're worried about lessening of competition, the laws are all there. This public interest test is so wafty, so ambiguous - it will create a lot of money for lawyers I suspect, but its main purpose is a political one. There's no other explanation for it. So if it is by some mischance introduced, if the Parliament does approve it, we will repeal it.

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Paul Kelly: What's your view about this new office of the public interest media advocate? Do you think that this is an office which is likely to be ineffective or do you think the problem with it is that it's got too many powers which can be abused in terms of taking sanctions against media organisations? What's your view about the essential problem with this new office?

Malcolm Turnbull: The essential problem with it is that it has the government getting involved in the content of newspapers. Now we believe that newspapers should be free from regulation by the government in terms of their content. Now obviously newspapers have got to comply with the law about defamation and contempt of court and all of that sort of thing, but there is no justification for the first time in peacetime for the government to be taking an interest in the content of newspapers. People don't have to read newspapers, if they are defamed they can sue. I think we can usefully make some amendments to defamation law to make it more effective, but that's a different issue. This is a disgraceful intervention in our freedom. And, Paul, you know, I say this to you with as much force as I can: the work that you and Peter do, and other journalists do and newspapers do, is as important for our democracy as anything that I do as a legislator. And your work in our democracy depends on you being free, free from government.

Paul Kelly: I just want to take this up because one of the concerns that the Government has is what's happening in terms of the quality of media across the board. That is, we look at talkback radio, we look at the shock jocks, we look at the tabloids. Now what's your

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view on this? To what extent are you concerned about the tenor of the Australian media and do you think there's been a decline in this tenor?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, I'd quote Winston Churchill to begin with, who said that complaining about the media is like complaining about the weather....

Paul Kelly: I'm not asking you to complain, I'm asking what your views are.

Malcolm Turnbull: Okay, coming back to the question. I am very concerned. I genuinely worry a lot about - I've written and talked about this a lot - about what is happening to the media, in particular the newspapers because their business model has been eroded. Not because they've got less readers, because they've got more readers than ever in fact, but because their advertising has moved into the more cost effective platforms of the internet. Search and Google being the main beneficiary. What that's meant is that there is so much less money available to newspapers, those great foundations of journalism are not able to put as many journalists to work. So the news rooms are shrinking, it's very hard to afford investigative journalism and so forth. So I worry about that. But let me tell you, the answer is not a government regulator. The answer is not a government regulator, that's the least thing they do.

Paul Kelly:

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What is the answer?

Malcolm Turnbull: The answer has got to be coming up with more competitive, attractive models and getting people to pay for content and being able to find more effective platforms for advertising. I'll give you a practical problem. So many of us are now consuming our news on smart phones, they are not big obviously, they don't have a lot of real estate. So you can't have as much banner advertising as you can on a computer screen or even on a tablet. So newspapers are finding that they need to use more video because you can always run a pre-rolled video ad. It's simply a function of having to say we've got to be more competitive, more creative, more innovative to generate the revenues.

Peter van Onselen: Stay with us, we are going to take a commercial break. We are discussing Stephen Conroy's media reforms with the shadow spokesperson for communications, Malcolm Turnbull. Back in a moment.

Welcome back. Paul Kelly and I are speaking to the shadow communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull, I wanted to ask you about the watchdog that the Government is looking to appoint to oversee newspapers. The Prime Minister has claimed that the person appointed would be the equivalent of a High Court judge in terms of their independence. How do you view that kind of comparison?

Malcolm Turnbull:

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Well, it's not correct of course, because they're not going to be appointed for life or until they're 70 and so they will be appointed for a term of years. So they are just like any other government appointee, frankly. But that's not really the question. It doesn't matter whether the appointee's chosen by the College of Cardinals. The real question is why do you need a government official overseeing the content of newspapers. And we say no, we want the press to be as free as possible.

Now obviously newspapers have to comply with the laws of the land, defamation and so forth, but there is just no justification for this. There is no need for it. Remember I asked Julia Gillard in the Parliament, "Give us some examples of the problem you're seeking to address. Just one, just give us one". She couldn't give us one. So what's the mischief? Where are the great horrors that this is going to address?

Peter van Onselen: Let me ask you this: you mentioned before the break that one of the existing areas of oversight, like defamation, is something that could have some tweaking. What sort of tweaking are you thinking in relation to defamation?

Malcolm Turnbull: I've been advocating this for years, and this is a simple change and I'm interested in Paul's view as a newspaper editor. Most of the time when people are defamed in newspapers or indeed in television it's a mistake. And it just, you know, mistakes happen. You are assembling news in a great hurry and mistakes happen. Very often the newspaper is reluctant to make an apology and a correction because it will expose them to a damages action. So what I've argued for is that given that the public have an interest in getting a timely correction so that - because the public has got an interest in

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getting the facts straight as well - I've argued that if a newspaper, and this will apply to other media of course, were to publish a timely apology and correction then the person who has been defamed would not be able to recover any damages, unless of course they have actually suffered real loss to their business. That hardly ever happens. So what that would mean is a newspaper editor, which Paul of course used to be, if a journalist makes a terrible mistake...

Peter van Onselen: It is in your interest to get it out there and fix it.

Malcolm Turnbull: He knows he can correct it, he or she knows they can correct it and then basically that is over. Now, obviously you'd have to have exceptions for malice and there’d have to be a few provisos there.

Peter van Onselen: What's the reaction been like internally within the Coalition?

Malcolm Turnbull: We've talked about it. To be honest it's something that we should pay more attention to, I should discuss with my colleagues further. There's always been a lot of reluctance, I think, on the legal profession to see reform like that because of course it would end most defamation. Most defamation litigation would not occur because you would clean up - it would give the editor the absolute incentive to clean up the mistakes very

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quickly, and I think it would of course reduce costs enormously. I used to practice defamation law years ago, as you know.

Paul Kelly: If we just go to this question of free speech. Do you think free speech will be an election issue? Does the Coalition aspire to make it an election issue?

Malcolm Turnbull: Absolutely. Freedom of the press is a huge issue, it is an election issue. We are on the side of freedom. And if these laws are passed, Paul, as I said earlier we will repeal them.

Paul Kelly: What if they are not passed?

Malcolm Turnbull: If they are not passed they know that if they elect us into government, if they elect Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, we will not be seeking to regulate newspapers or interfere with their content in the way the Labor Party has shown it obviously wants to.

Paul Kelly: Do you think that Labor might have a second go if they get re-elected?

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Malcolm Turnbull: I'm sure they would, why wouldn't they? This is clearly something that they want to do. It wouldn't be credible - who knows what they'll say, but there is very little that they say is credible. But it's hard to believe they’ve been knocked back because they couldn't get the crossbenchers aboard, if in a future parliament they had a majority in their own right they wouldn't try to do it again.

Peter van Onselen: So this isn't an election issue whether they get it passed or not, simply because they've put in on the table, they clearly want it, and the only reason it doesn't pass is because they don't have the numbers at the moment?

Malcolm Turnbull: That would be the only reason it won't pass, yeah, because they can't get the crossbenchers on board. So they'll be going to the polls saying "Give us a majority". And regardless of what is in their platform people will know that if they get a majority they will seek to regulate the newspapers.

Paul Kelly: I wanted to ask you about the ABC. Do you agree that in this current environment the ABC and the influence of the ABC as a broadcaster is going to be more important than ever?

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Malcolm Turnbull: I think it is more important because so much of the big foundations of journalism we were talking about earlier are under siege, and of course the ABC being paid for by the taxpayers' money doesn't suffer those pressures.

This puts two big responsibilities on the ABC, at least two. One is that it has to be absolutely focused on being fair and balanced. I mean the 'Daily Telegraph' can be as unbalanced and outrageous as it likes, but the ABC has a different obligation. Jim Spigelman, the chairman, said very, very wisely, the ABC relates to its viewers and listeners both as consumers and as citizens. So the ABC has to be fair, balanced, strictly accurate. It has to, if you like, it's got an obligation to hit a higher standard.

Paul Kelly: Let's just follow up on that before you get to point two. As someone who clearly listens to and watches the ABC an awful lot, do you think the ABC currently meets that test? I'm thinking now of the ABC's attitude on issues such as industrial relations, climate change, boat people, markets versus government intervention. Are you satisfied that in those frontline areas the ABC is doing the appropriate job?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well I think generally that is their intention, I have got a lot of confidence in Mark Scott, the chief executive. But obviously from time to time their particular programs are not balanced enough, and I've taken them on about this issues.

Paul Kelly:
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Sure, I mean you’re the incoming minister if there is a change of government. Are you satisfied or not satisfied in terms of them meeting this test at the moment?

Malcolm Turnbull: I think by and large they do, Paul, yeah. But again, that's a big - I've had a rather colourful difference of opinion with their coverage of some of the issues associated with the NBN. Let me make the other second point though, which is perhaps not as important but very critical. And that is that the ABC does not have the discipline of a profit and loss. So it's very easy, unless it is very, very well managed, for it to allow its costs and work practices to get out of line. And with every generation of technology you can do things in the media with fewer people and more cost effectively.

Now the ABC has got to ensure that as each new generation of technology comes aboard they don't maintain the work practices of previous eras.

Peter van Onselen: Do you think there is room for cuts at the ABC with the way it is at the moment?

Malcolm Turnbull: They are producing more with their government grant than they ever have, so they are getting - we're getting more bang for our taxpayers' buck. But I think that Mark Scott is quite rightly focused, and he should be, on ensuring that the ABC is always very, very focused on cost effectiveness. The ABC employs wonderful people, I'm not criticising the staff, but it is not a benefit for the employees it is a benefit for the people of

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Australia. And so what it has to do is deliver the maximum quality output adhering to those standards of fairness and balance, and do so in the most cost effective way.

Peter van Onselen: I wanted to ask you about your earlier comments about the rules that the ABC has in place for things like fairness and balance, and relate it to some of the ideas in the media reform package that Stephen Conroy has put up. A lot of ABC journalists have taken to Twitter and elsewhere asking the question or positing the question: what's the different between what Conroy is looking to institute for newspapers to the kind of rules that already exist for us at the ABC. What's your answer to that, given that you oppose what Conroy is doing.

Malcolm Turnbull: It is different, but without getting into details let's deal with it at a high level. The ABC has a different obligation to the 'Daily Telegraph'. The ABC has an obligation to be fair and to be balanced and it has an obligation to be that. Now, the editor of a newspaper may choose to be fair and balanced but the editor of a newspaper has the perfect right to be biased because that's their freedom. If you are a public broadcaster you have a different standard than if you are a privately owned commercial entity like a newspaper. And that's my point. So there's no point the ABC saying why can't the newspapers comply with the same duties, obligations we do. They are not in the same category.

Peter van Onselen: I philosophically agree with that and the freedom of speech that goes with it, and the right of a newspaper to campaign in any which-way it likes, but that's a harder sell with the public, isn't it, when you're essentially saying that we want to preserve the right of
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papers to be able to run their own agendas as opposed to copy the ABC brand of fairness and balance?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, you know, I mean I don't think so. I think people quite enjoy newspapers to be campaigning. All of the criticisms of Stephen Conroy in the 'Daily Telegraph', you couldn't have that sort of - that would be utterly unacceptable on the ABC, obviously. But the ABC, as I said, is in a different category. It is paid for with taxpayers’ money and it has to do - look, every survey shows Australians have a high degree of trust in the ABC and they've earned that by being fair and balanced. Perhaps not always as fair and as balanced as everyone would like, or some people would like, but by and large that's what they have striven to do and they have got to maintain that. That is their absolute obligation, Peter, there's no question about that.

Paul Kelly: If we just go to one other aspect of Government policy in relation to the ABC, and that is the Government wants to ensure that the ABC forever and a day has responsibility for the overseas television network. I think the Coalition has a different position on that. What's your view on that issue and what would a Coalition Government do on that question?

Malcolm Turnbull: The Government is proposing an amendment in the ABC legislation which introduces changes to the ABC and SBS charters, which are basically bringing them up to date. We don't have any great issues with those.

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There is one provision however, 31AA, that basically says that only the ABC can be contracted to deliver an overseas television service for the government, like the Australia Network. And you will remember the shambles that went on where the Government last year had a tender for the Australia Network service between Sky and the ABC, Sky won it twice I think and then they decided to give it to the ABC.

I just make a couple of points. I'm not saying that the ABC is doing a bad job, I'm not saying it's inappropriate to have the national broadcaster doing that service, but it seems to us to be absolutely bad policy to remove any prospect of contestability. So that means, for example, that if that provision became law it would mean that the Government goes to the ABC and says "Alright, what are you going to charge to do this Australia Network international service". Let's say the ABC comes up with a ridiculously high figure, the Government's not in a position to say "Look that's a bit rich, we'll put it out to tender" to see what someone else has.

Paul Kelly: So what should the government do?

Malcolm Turnbull: If we can restore contestability we will, obviously. So what we will do is we will seek to amend that bill to remove that provision from the bill that's going into the Parliament at the moment.

Paul Kelly:
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And then?

Malcolm Turnbull: If it is passed then we would seek to repeal it in the future. And that is not - I want to be quite clear about this - I'm not saying that it is our policy that the ABC should not do this. Quite the contrary. I'm not saying that the ABC is doing a bad job. What I am saying though, it does seem pretty strange that you would remove any prospect of being able to get some contestability.

Peter van Onselen: If it's opened back up to tender the ABC wouldn't have a chance because we've got Stan Grant on this network now and he knows more about Asia than the entire ABC put together. But we'll move on into more serious issues.

Malcolm Turnbull: Spoken with great objectivity.

Peter van Onselen: Of course, no conflict at all. The NBN. What do you do about the inconsistency of the rollout in terms of what people will individually have if you don't go through with it? Because obviously if you win the next election some parts of Australia would have had the rollout to their doorstep, most won't. How do you find...

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Malcolm Turnbull: Hardly any will.

Peter van Onselen: How do you deal with that inconsistency though, where some areas will have faster service because it all hasn't been rolled out yet.

Malcolm Turnbull: You've to remember that firstly even under the Government's plan 7% of Australia are not going to get fibre to the premises. So they will get wireless and satellite. So that offers potentially lower speeds. Secondly, the real issue is not what the headline speed is, which is often theoretical - I can come back to that - but what services are available. What can you do with it. As long as everyone has got access to speeds that enable them to use all of the applications that they value or that they find useful, then the coverage is fine. If I have access to 100 megabits per second and you have access to 50, there's really nothing I can think of that I can do at 100 that you can't do at 50. In fact there's not much you can do at 100 that you can't do at 25. I think that issue is a bit overblown.

The network will always be a patchwork, that's the genius of the internet, that it is a patchwork. But the fundamental problem that we've got with the NBN is not simply that it's costing so much money - I mean that is huge obviously, and that's our biggest complaint - but it's taking so long. At the rate they are going this could take 20 years or more to complete, and it could cost up to $100 billion. I mean...

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Paul Kelly: Where does that figure come from?

Malcolm Turnbull: If you look, Paul, at how much it is costing per premise to roll this out, and of course you have got to remember they have reached now as of end of December passed only 70,000-odd premises out of 12.25 million they are supposed to do over the next eight years. They have been building for 19 months in three states, or two states and a territory - WA, South Australia and Northern Territory, and have not been able to connect one premise.

Paul Kelly: So all this is based on the current rate of progress.

Malcolm Turnbull: The current rate of progress is incredibly slow.

Peter van Onselen: Stephen Conroy makes the point it's supposed to start slow and ramp up down the track.

Malcolm Turnbull:

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This is what happens with every failed project, right. As every month of poor performance comes in, the hockey stick in the out years gets steeper and steeper. They're saying we know we're just jogging along like this, but don't worry in a year we're going to take off like a rocket. Well the fact is that they're just not performing. They said in the end of 2010 that by June 30 2013 they would have 1.3 million premises passed. Then they said in August last year they'd have about 340,000 passed. Now it's going to be about...

Paul Kelly: Just cutting to the chase here, can you just tell us when do we get your policy? We've heard a lot of talk about the Coalition policy, when is it going to be released?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well it will be released in good time with plenty of time...

Paul Kelly: Haven't you and Tony Abbott sorted this out yet?

Malcolm Turnbull: My policy, Paul, is - when we release the public document, the final document, there will be nothing in it that will be new because I have set out our policy at great length and in eye-glazingly technical detail in many speeches and articles. So no-one in the telecom sector in Australia is under any misapprehension as to what we're going to do.

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Paul Kelly: It's surely desirable, seeing this is a wonderful policy, it's surely desirable to allow the public to look at the policy, to actually release the policy so...

Malcolm Turnbull: We will.

Peter van Onselen: Are you frustrated that you're not able to release it now?

Malcolm Turnbull: To release it today on your show?

Peter van Onselen: That would be great, but sooner rather than later.

Malcolm Turnbull: It will be released sooner rather than later and there will be plenty of time, many months, before the election for people to consider it and debate it. That I assure you. The work has been done and the strategy, the approach, has been described at length in my speech. Look, the fundamental pledge is this, this is the bottom line: we will complete the NBN. We will ensure all Australians have very fast broadband and we will

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do it sooner, cheaper and hence more affordably than the Labor Government can. And the criticisms we've been making about their project costing too much and taking too long are all being borne out by experience.

So the criticisms that we made of their business plan and corporate plan which they said oh, that's just politics, we are being proved right by their failure to build this project.

Peter van Onselen: Malcolm Turnbull, hopefully we can have you back on the program after the policy is released. We appreciate you joining us today. You've been generous with your time. Thanks very much.

Malcolm Turnbull: Thank you.

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