Quigley openly slams Coalition’s broadband policy


news NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has delivered a stinging attack on the Coalition’s broadband policy, publicly backing Labor’s rival National Broadband Network project just days before the Federal Election due on Saturday.

In a speech to the Australian Computer Society in Sydney this afternoon, Quigley stated explicitly that it was “better to invest $27 billion” — the amount that the Government expects to invest itself in the NBN — rather than “spend $6 billion” as the Coalition is planning to do under its own policy.

You can download the full speech in PDF form here.

The Coalition has repeatedly described the NBN as a “white elephant”, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has highlighted the potential for mobile broadband networks to provide much of the same functionality that Labor’s NBN project promises to deliver. Abbott has also pushed the potential for competition in the sector to achieve substantive outcomes and has pledged to abolish Quigley’s company.

In his speech, Quigley appeared to directly attack the Coalition’s claims, according to speech notes delivered to the press this afternoon.

“Far from being a ‘white elephant’, the NBN can provide an acceptable return for the government,” he said. “Taxpayers will get their $27 billion investment back with interest and they will get a network they can use for decades. This is, I believe, a much better option for the Australian public than giving billions of dollars of taxpayer funding to subsidise commercial companies to marginally improve today’s broadband networks.”

Quigley also attacked the Coalition’s mobile focus.

“Some have claimed that the fibre to the premises network would end up not being used because of the growing capability of mobile networks,” he said. “But why then, are some very large and very experienced commercial telcos investing in fibre architectures, both fibre to the node and fibre to the premises?”

Mentioning AT&T, Verizon and China Mobile, for example, he said: “Are all these telcos wrong about the future of fibre to the premises?”

Abbott has also referred to the idea that it is not Government’s role to dictate what technologies it should support, because future technological development may make them obsolete.

“To suggest that we not build a fibre-based network in Australia now, because maybe some new, but not yet imagined, technology may turn up, displays a rather naive view about how science and technology progresses,” said Quigley.

Furthermore, Quigley argued — again, contrary to the Coalition’s view — it was good use of public money to build the NBN. “Not only because of the advantages that a national fibre network provides, but because it will simultaneously correct the industry structure problem which has limited Australia’s telecoms landscape for more than a decade,” he said.

The NBN Co chief acknowledged his comments — representing an unusual intervention by a government business entity into the political process — came at a charged time.

“When, many months ago, I accepted the invitation to speak here today, little did I know that it would be just a few days before a Federal Election, the outcome of which will have a profound impact on our industry,” he said, noting he questioned how to react with his speech.

“My conclusion was to take a deep breath and just tell it as I see it — without fear or favour,” he said.

Image credit: Delimiter


  1. Has Quigley not heard of caretaker conventions? He needs to remember that he is not officially a member of the Labor party.

    • Personally I am shocked and appalled by this dramatic intervention by NBN Co into a highly politicised process. It has caused me to lose a great deal of respect for Mike Quigley.

      What might be “technical facts” for him are obviously “political weapons” for other players. And he should be quite aware of that fact.

      • I’m sure he’s very aware but he also wants to keep himself and his mates in a job

    • Don’t think the caretaker conventions apply.
      CEO of a government owned business isn’t the same as a public servant AFAIK.

      IMHO it’s fair enough given the steaming pile the opposition has served up as their ‘policy’.
      Business has clearly demonstrated that it will not serve the community interests of rural and remote Australia—it is a role government ought play.

      • So would it be a fair call if the CEO of Australia Post decided to intervene in an election debate about the cost of stamps? Of course not. Quigley should not be commenting on Opposition broadband policy — it’s not his role to do so.

        • Also, just a note here — the Caretaker Conventions explicitly state that they do apply to government business enterprises like NBN Co.

          • Point 1.5:

            The relationship between ministers and other bodies, such as statutory authorities and government companies, varies from body to body. However, those bodies should observe the conventions and practices unless to do so would conflict with their legal obligations or compelling organisational requirements.”

          • Thanks, though it only states ‘should’ and also notes that there is great variance in the situations of such enterprises and their relation to ministerial government.

            Also the following point (1.6) is instructive:
            ‘The conventions are neither legally binding nor hard and fast rules. Their application in individual cases requires judgment and common sense.’

            The conventions are concerned primarily with new appointments, spending and the potential for use of Commonwealth resources being used for campaigning.

            Section 6.4 concerns participation in debate but specifically references the Australian public service and makes no mention of non APS entities.

            Given the farcical ineptitude of the opposition’s so called policy on network access I argue that it is common sense for Quigley to speak out against their ignorant insinuations.

  2. Renai, what is worse? A tech manager who explains why the social and technical aspects of one plan is better than another or an alleged journalist who explicitly injects blatant subjective judgement into his ‘reporting’?

    • Hi Glen,

      curious to know where you think I have injected subjective comment into the article. I attempted to play it with a straight bat.

      My personal opinion is that Quigley has breached the Caretaker Conventions. However I did not write that in the article, and I am happy to be persuaded otherwise if somebody can produce evidence to that effect. I have read the Caretaker Conventions document myself.



  3. Renai I’m more then happy to see an expert in the field blast what he sees as ‘inadquate’ policy making, and yes it is election time so when better to sell your own policy advantanges seeing how the Coaltion broadband policy will only have advantages for Telstra and its 1.4m shareholders.

    If Tony Abbott doesnt understand what he’s talking about, maybe he should remain silent, that goes for Julia and Conjob too.

    • Tyrone, I am also happy to see an expert in the field comment on these sorts of things. But it is inappropriate for those working under Minister to be involved in the public discussion in an election period. That is the role of the politicians. As anyone who has worked in the public service will tell you, it is not a public servant’s job to sell a policy or to create it — it is a public servant’s job to implement policies set by politicians.

      You can argue that Quigley is not a public servant. However, government business enterprises are covered by the Caretaker Conventions, as the document makes clear.

      Furthermore, there is even reason to argue that Quigley is an “official” — who are even further prohibited from commenting in political debates during elections.

      I’m not anti-NBN — in fact I think it’s a great idea, although to my mind much of the process has been poorly managed, and doesn’t take into account market competition. However, it is my responsibility as a journo to hold powerful people like Quigley to the responsibilities they signed up for.

      • Im sorry to disagree but however “official” you believe Quigley to be comes from his experience from working in the Telecommunictions sector not the brief but exemplary role @ NBNco.

        Quigley was commenting on policy which affects all Australians not just the ones who have jobs at NBNco which I believe is in the intrestes of us all. Much like the RBA’s head Glen Stevens who is able to make public remarks in or out of an election season.

        Futhermore many maywell see Mark Lathem as an “Offical” doesn’t mean ill be donkey voting on Saturday.
        It about time people make up their own minds with the available evidence.

        Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Conjob have already proven themselves technically illiterate so who else is to step up and debate the issues opennly?

        • You’re right, Tyrone — Quigley does have a solid grasp of the technical facts.

          However, I think you will find that RBA spokespeople severely refrain from commenting in depth on Government or Coalition policy during any period. You certainly would never see an RBA spokesperson slamming a contentious Coalition policy during an election period as Quigley has — nor would you see the head of any other Government Business Enterprise such as Australia Post doing so.

  4. Renai: “I am shocked and appalled by this dramatic intervention by NBN Co into a highly politicised process. It has caused me to lose a great deal of respect for Mike Quigley.”

    Story/comments makes little difference to me on a blog-based site.

    If you disagree with Quigley’s points, then say so. You seem to disagree with the fact he is making any points at all. I follow you on Twitter etc not because I value your reporting for your media commentary about media, but for your commentary about tech issues.

    What are the tech, economic, industry, etc implications of his speech? What is the “profound impact on our industry”?

    You note this is already a ‘highly political’ process. The fact that a political process is political is the stuff of demotivationals.

    • I don’t disagree with Quigley’s points — I think he is a highly astute individual and technically correct in most of his assertions.

      However, it is important to point out that Quigley’s intervention into a highly politicised debate during a Federal Election is an extraordinary event and, in my opinion, breaches the rules governing government business enterprises and public servants during such a time.

      I have no problem with Quigley promoting the benefits of the NBN. What I do have a problem with is a Government busienss enterprise directly criticising the alternative government during an election period.

      The whole NBN debate has never been just about the technology side of things. Why would anyone expect me to restrict my opinion to that side of things?

      If you think that I am wrong, and that Quigley is fine to interject in the political debate, then argue that point :)

      • Renai: Ok :)

        It depends on whether or not you believe a CEO should exert business judgement regarding whether or not the CEO’s business is the best service of a given (future) market or not?

        It seems to me (and I am not a lawyer, so this is certainly not legal advice zing!) that the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 Division 4—Conduct of officers makes it clear that Quigley should make decisions based on what he thinks is in the “Commonwealth authority’s” best interests. So does Quigley act like a CEO or not?

        If he is to act like a CEO then he should be allowed to say whatever he believes is in the best interests of NBN Co and the Commonwealth Authority. He is not a public official, if he was then the Caretaker Act would be relevant: “the apolitical nature of the public service and avoiding the use of Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party”. So what is he?

        In the relevant legislation (CAC 2007) he would appear to be a “senior manager” so he “(i) makes, or participates in making, decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part, of the operations of the authority; or (ii) has the capacity to affect significantly the authority’s financial standing.”

        Financial standing. Does a business cease operating like a business because political interests are actively acting against the financial standing? On the contrary!

        Surely, according to my brief perusal of the legislation at hand, Quigley _had_ to speak out in favour of the NBN?

        Are you implicitly advocating for the NBN to be made properly infrastructural, so Quigley is part of the public service? What are the benefits of such a set up? That we wouldn’t have another voice of reason to combat political propaganda of the Coalition’s bandaid solution because such a voice would be silenced by non-legally binding ‘guidelines’?

        • Taking your argument, there should be no constraints on what Quigley does or doesn’t do — he should behave simply as if NBN Co is a private sector company and look out for its own interests.

          However, clearly Quigley’s situation is a little bit (to exaggerate greatly) more complicated than that.

          For instance, he does not have the ability to negotiate freely with other companies. The recent agreement with Telstra is a perfect example of this. For that agreement to go through, legislation will be required and the complete buy-in and involvement of the Government.

          The Government is not exactly an idle bystander in the NBN implementation process — it has been and will continue to be involved at very many levels in every major decision that NBN Co makes.

          Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam, for one, has recognised this fact in his statement that he would prefer the NBN Co to remain in public hands so that he — not even a member of the Government — can call its leaders before Senate Estimates Committees to explain its actions on any given circumstance.

          In short, it is simply reality — acknowledged by everyone in the political process — that NBN Co is not an independent authority or company such as the ACCC or Telstra. It is a government-owned organisation in which the government has a significant decision-making capacity and will continue to do so.

          In this context, it is inappropriate for Quigley to comment in public on Coalition policy. To do so is to interject in a political process in which he has no place — as his organisation is not involved in making policy but rather simply in implementing it.

          As I’ve said before, I agree with most of his arguments. But it is not his place to make them in public — it is the Government’s job, and most especially the job of his minister, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. For Quigley to describe his speech today as “the facts” is simply an attempt to steer attention away from the “fact” that it was political in nature.

  5. I quickly looked at the conventions.

    1. They do not have force of law in it self. They are tied into the Public Service Act 1999 “political nutreality” clauses.

    2. The issue would be if Quigley is concidered to be “Executive Agency” under the PSA 1999. Given the outburst, I would say no, otherwise he would have been bound under the caretaker conventions.

    3. As these are conventions, there may be wiggle room, but blatantly ignoring them is a hanging offense if the oposition wins. Given he would be on the gallows anyway after the election if the Liberal Party wins, this may be a factor in the outburst.

    • I agree with point 3.

      Quigley knows that if the Opposition wins the election, his job and his company are toast anyway — so rationally, he has no reason not speak out about issues he cares deeply about. Labor will clearly forgive him for doing so if it takes Government on Saturday.

      This truth is self-evident.

      However, there is a wider issue here — the issue of Quigley’s own credibility and integrity. How can the technology community now take him and NBN Co seriously as an independent government-owned business when he has interjected in such a startlingly partisan way in a deeply controversial issue in the midst of a Federal Election?

      I have no doubt his comments are correct, technically. But that does not matter — “facts” are not “facts” in the middle of a political campaign. And he should know that.

      • You see it as partisan, I see it as an accurate account by an industry expert as to the failings of this opposition to come up with effective policy in the area of telecommunications. How can he have no credability when he speaks out on the issues such as this but also has donated his salary to charity for this year. I cant make the same sentiments to those in the media.

        The telecommunications deadlock that has been around since the sell off of Telstra and the subsiquent creation of a monopoly which fought tooth and nail to keep competetion out of the exchanges must change if Australians are expecting reasonable prices for broadband access.

        Which is another area in which Quigley has highlighed in reference to the Coaliton plan to use increasing amounts of wireless spectrum (god knows from where it will come until 2013, which sets it even further behind the 8 ball then the NBN plan that the taxpayers have already). He singles out perfect case sudies with the HFC roll out in the 90s and the increased duplication there.

        These are not comments of a partisan know-nothing which we have enough on both sides of the house, would you mind not attacking him continually for voicing some sense in a climate of idiocy that we see day to day with the ‘non-Bill Gates” of the country.

        You seem just not to like Quigley for some reason.

        • On the contrary, as I have repeatedly stated, I have a great deal of respect for the man and his achievements.

          Nor, as I have stated, do I disagree with Quigley’s comments about the Coalition. And, I have never characterised him as a “know nothing”.

          What I do disagree with is your characterisation of Quigley as an “industry expert”. That term is reserved for those who are commenting from an independent point of view. If the Coalition wins the election on Saturday, Quigley will be likely out of a job. This hardly qualifies him as an objective observer, as he is well aware.

          And I still feel that Government Business Enterprises should not interject in a debate between the current Government and the alternative Government, on a controversial policy matter 3 days before the voting begins.

  6. Also, if under the PSA 1999, he MUST give frank and honest advice to Ministers of the Crown. And he can (and has!) argue that he has done this

  7. I hope for MQ’s sake that NBN co does succeed and becomes the huge success for Australia that it’s being hyped to be – within 5 years. Because if it does fail there will be all hell to pay.
    The evolution of Wireless – Wi max and 4G LTE mobile should see DL speeds pass the 100Mb/s mark within 3 years, so whether NBN co likes it or not there will be a competitive wireless alternative for many people.

    What concerns me is that the government – who is also the wireless spectrum manager can limit the amount of spectrum auctioned as well as geographical licence areas for wireless expansion – in an effort to minimise real competition to NBN co. This sort of conflict -of – interest is the reason that government regulators should not be network providers – or even pseudo network providers. Supporters of NBN co might say that such government tactics are fair game but in the end the issue is cost / kb/s of data and there’s nothing like competition and technological diversity to drive costs down. If this network is so important to Australia then it also needs to represent the best bang for buck.

    I really do see the NBN co’s pure fibre approach as a very high risk venture for taxpayers dollars and I’m not confident or satisfied that the plan has been subjected to the appropriate scrutiny from real (technology and business) experts. The fact that it’s only now in the midst of an election campaign that it’s being subjected to any real scrutiny is a very unfortunate situation.

    • David L

      If the NBN fails it will be a bad thing for fibre globally. Anytime in the world a democratically elected politician wanted to propose a fibre plan, an opposition politician only has to point at Australia and demonise the idea. (Don’t believe me, look at the Arctic conditions in the dotcom world and undersea cable sector for much of the decade after 2001, which has only come back in the last couple of years). That is why some of us are asking difficult questions – not because we think wireless is better than fibre – but because a poorly framed “milestone” project will set back fibre globally if it is not a success. There were aspects of that speech today which greatly concern me as a matter of fact.

  8. Speaking as a public servant, my opinion is that there’s far too few at that level who do say what they think. Regardless of an election or not – saying what one thinks without spin and without fear or favour has a lot to say for itself. Unless you’re Mark Latham, in which case STFU :-P

  9. Have you seen the Cut and Paste section in The Australian today Renai? Well done delimiter!

  10. I was at the event – thought Mike Quigley made his points on why the NBN should be publically funded to the extent that it is really well. And I have been very entertained reading the posts around the topic on this blog for the last hour or so.

    For anyone that missed it and wants to watch the whole thing unedited in full, here is a link to the webcast:

  11. A fascinating debate about public policy re who can say what around election time, with many good points on that issue from both “for” and “against”.

    But I got here because I got no reply from my local labour member on what cost/benefit, technical merit and “whats in it for me” (I live in a fairly remote country area) questions . I had to vote half an hour ago weighing the risks attached to NBN against my utter indignation with the Libs decision to go outside the system and have their policies “costed” by an independent accounting form (in point of fact the Perth branch of a little-known “second tier” firm whose report I have obtained – a half page accompanied by 18 spreadsheet pages which do no more than add up a list of costs and savings they were given, no doubt by the local Perth liberals).

    I chose to run with Labour as the NBN (I think) still has to get through the Lib or Green controlled Senate (and possibly a hung Reps).

    Now I am left wondering whether of not I should read the Quigley (“job on the line”) paper as I might be condoning an arguable breach of the “Caretaker” guidelines.

    Oh what the heck, my Broadband future is more important to me than an “angels and needles” debate between jounos, so here goes!

    Geoff K

  12. Mike Quigley needs to understand that he is a public servant and he should refrain from getting involved in the Politics – something he knows little about. He is just a very naive teco who has delusions of grandeur about himself

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