opinion Malcolm Turnbull’s dogged attacks on the highly capable and transparent chief executive of the National Broadband Company are without basis and run contrary to the Shadow Communications Minister’s public call recently for truth, leadership and responsibility to re-enter Australia’s political sphere.
One of the first tasks which Malcolm Turnbull set himself after being appointed Shadow Communications Minister in September 2010 was to take up a cause being championed by the Australian branch of the Murdoch News Inc empire at the time: To take down the chief executive of the National Broadband Network Company set up by the Labor Federal Government to enact its NBN policy.
Appointed in July 2009 after a lengthy and distinguished career in the global telecommunications sector (you can read a full background check I commissioned on the executive at the time), Quigley is one of the few Australians to have held high-level office in a global technology giant as big as his long-time employer, French networking giant Alcatel-Lucent. He is also one of the few top-level executives globally and one of the only Australians of any stripe to have any substantial experience deploying the kind of fibre to the home infrastructure build which makes up the vast bulk of Labor’s NBN rollout.
Many executives in his position would have declined the dubious honour of leading NBN Co. The chief executive position at the company is poorly paid by industry standards; certainly to Quigley, who is independently wealthy courtesy of his time at the top of Alcatel-Lucent, it would have seemed a pittance. This fact is illustrated by the fact that the NBN Co chief donated his first years’ earnings in the role to medical research.
Then there was the political situation. In 2009, Australia’s NBN project was facing a highly uncertain future. The project required a decade of work and sustained political backing at the highest levels to reach fruition, but the then-Rudd Labor Government had already suffered an initial setback in the project after an expert committee showed that its previous, more limited NBN plan, was unworkable. The Opposition hadn’t paid much attention to Labor’s NBN plan previously – with then-Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith issuing about one media release on the subject per annum – but it was clear that Labor would need to win at least two more elections to ensure the NBN’s ongoing survival.
So why did Quigley take the role leading NBN Co – a role that would see him tasked with setting up a huge national infrastructure company from scratch, a company with the importance of Telstra? Why did he volunteer to place himself in the firing line of public and political opinion for at least half a decade? Why did this doyenne of the private sector abandon an already high-flying international career for a much lesser and comparatively poorly paid role implementing the vision of a Labor Government?
I’ve followed Quigley’s every professional move for three years now in my capacity as a journalist covering Australia’s telecommunications sector. I’ve attended dozens of press conferences held by the man and asked him probing questions. I’ve listened to many of his speeches. I’ve asked industry figures and his colleagues what they think of him. So I feel I am somewhat qualified to answer this question.
Quigley took the role of NBN Co chief executive for two reasons: To follow the ideal of public service after a lengthy career pursuing private sector profit, and because he believes the NBN project is fundamentally the right path for Australia to take.
There was a certain naivety about this choice that Quigley made, a certain idealism. Like many technologists, the executive believes that technology has the capacity to make the world a better place if implemented correctly. It’s my opinion that he also shares with many of the sector’s leaders the belief that politics is somewhat of a sideshow before the onward march of technology.
You can see this passion in the notorious speech he delivered in the midst of the 2010 Federal Election campaign (the full text is here in PDF format). As Gillard’s Labor camp looked on the verge of losing the campaign, Quigley made an impassioned argument for the technical strengths of Labor’s NBN plan, heavily criticising the Coalition’s rather anemic alternative. Some, including myself, criticised the NBN Co CEO at the time for what many saw as a breach of public service etiquette. It’s this same naivety which perhaps cost Quigley the chance at the chief executive role at Alcatel for which many clearly believed he was destined. In my studies of the man, Quigley always does what’s right – but perhaps not what is politically expedient.
Some would argue that Malcolm Turnbull is also a leader who shies away from following political expediency as a tactic. Over the past several days I’ve been reading David Marr’s fascinating Quarterly Essay on the ‘political animal’ that is the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Marr tracks Abbott’s voracious rise to power over the past several decades; from his offensively anti-gay and well, frankly anti-almost everything modern history in student politics at the University of Sydney and then his gradual entrance into the Federal political arena.
On the sidelines of Abbott’s rise sat Turnbull, who reported on his future rival for the Bulletin Magazine. The youthful Turnbull seemed somewhat taken aback by the popularity of the sometimes rabid Abbott, who was at the time contributing his own inflammatory pieces for The Australian; one is left with the impression that Turnbull believed himself a man of principles, while disdaining Abbott’s lack of them.
Then too, one does wonder whether Turnbull would still be Opposition Leader – or, perhaps, even Prime Minister, if he had made a little more allowance for political expediency in his ill-fated support for the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the closing months of 2009. Just one more vote, we must remind ourselves, would have seen the Member for Wentworth prevail in the Liberal party room against Abbott.
However, when it comes to his relationship with Quigley and the NBN, Turnbull has shown nothing but political expediency.
Some may recall the distasteful grilling which Turnbull very publicly subjected a bewildered Quigley to in May 2011 with respect to allegations of corruption at his past employer Alcatel, at a hearing of the Federal Parliament’s joint committee on the National Broadband Network. At the time, Turnbull very publicly stated that there was no witch hunt being conducted against Quigley, but it’s hard to escape the impression that if it wasn’t a witch hunt, that Turnbull was taking some very strong cues from the Cold War era US Senator Joe McCarthy at the time.
Article after article appeared in News Ltd publications investigating Quigley’s background at Alcatel-Lucent; spurious court document after spurious court document was dragged out of US and Central American law enforcement authorities; vague allegation after vague allegation was hurled at the NBN Co chief executive, and Turnbull was the front man for much of the commentary, always ready with a quote about how Quigley had ‘questions’ to answer on the matter, always ready to raise the issue in public again.
Of course, few in political circles ever dared say it out loud – and certainly no subscriber of a News Limited newspaper ever read it in print – but there was never any evidence linking Quigley to the corruption scandal which occurred at Alcatel in countries such as Costa Rica in the years up until 2006 and which spurred Turnbull’s relentless pursuit of Quigley, with the wholehearted backing of much of Australia’s conservative press. In mid-2011 the issue died as Quigley’s personal integrity stood the test of some of the most intense media and political scrutiny which Australia has ever seen.
For 12 months that dust has settled between Turnbull and Quigley, but now the Member for Wentworth is back on the hunt, with a new edge on his headsman’s axe.
iTNews reports that Turnbull told a community meeting in the Sydney suburb of Epping on Monday that he did not believe Quigley had been “the right choice” to lead NBN Co, and that Quigley’s lack of “experience” in building fibre networks may be behind the NBN’s ‘dismal’ rollout schedule. He also implied that in a Coalition Government, “new management” would likely be required.
Now, it’s hard not to be staggered at the depth of Turnbull’s hypocrisy here – given the MP’s recent highly public call for Australia’s politicians to practice more “truth, leadership and responsibility”. But perhaps the Liberal MP has become used to hypocrisy in the NBN portfolio: Demanding an incredible level of financial detail on Labor’s NBN project while providing none of his own for the Coalition’s; misleading the Australian public about the Coalition’s vision of “completing” the NBN objective while actually planning to halt and dramatically modify it; personally investing in telcos rolling out fibre to the home in other countries while slamming Australia’s own fibre to the home rollout.
Just what, a casual observer might ask, has Mike Quigley done wrong, in his NBN Co role? By all accounts the company is run extremely well. Despite a constantly shifting landscape – changed requirements around greenfields estates, an extremely complex deal with Telstra and a wholesale change of the direction of the NBN rollout following a deal with the independents after the 2010 Federal Election – the NBN rollout is only six months late. Construction contracts in every Australian state and territory have been signed, equipment deals are all laid down, NBN Co’s satellite launch is on track … and all this, while Quigley has rapidly set up a new organisation composed of more than a thousand staff representing much of the cream of Australia’s technology sector.
What, pray tell, has Mr Quigley done to deserve Turnbull’s implication – and the implication of other senior Liberal figures such as Joe Hockey — that he be sacked?
Quigley has not embezzled NBN funds. Unlike Turnbull, he has not conflicts of interest in his position – and in fact, he has deliberately abstained from being involved in any purchasing decision involving his former employer, Alcatel-Lucent. He has not misused Government funds. In fact, he has used them in precisely the way his master, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, has directed. He has kept NBN Co within its broad financial commitments and budget, given the scale of the NBN project, and he has transparently answered any question which I have ever seen any journalist put to him – even the most offensive, base ones that question his personal integrity.
Quigley even had the grace to publicly invite Turnbull to a private briefing with him to discuss the technical aspects of the Coalition’s preferred fibre to the node technology; an invitation Turnbull never took up, to my knowledge.
The public sector executive which I would most compare Mike Quigley to is Greg Farr, the current Department of Defence chief information officer who also served as one of the most senior IT executives at the Australian Taxation Office. Like Quigley, Farr was also placed in charge of government technology initiatives worth billions, which were critical to Australia’s future. Like Quigley, Farr had a devotion to public service and fundamentally believed in the rightness of what he was doing. Like Quigley, Farr was revered by many in Australia’s technology sector as a calm head in the middle of a highly politicised situation; a man who would speak quietly, “without fear or favour”, as Quigley put it in the midst of the 2010 Federal Election, mildly telling the truth with a gentle dab of self-referential humour that charmed his audience. Like Farr, Quigley is humble.
On Australia Day this year, the Governor-General awarded Greg Farr a Public Service Medal for his several decades of work serving the Australian people. If the Coalition Government wins the next Federal Election, Mike Quigley is likely to be shown the door, if he hasn’t already pre-emptively resigned. To my mind, that would be a great tragedy. And there’s certainly no “truth, leadership and responsibility” in Malcolm Turnbull’s view on the matter. What there is, is the basest political expediency. A political expediency I had formerly believed that Turnbull had most attributed to Tony Abbott.
AS I write these words, I know that they will be echoed by very few in the Australian media. Turnbull’s popularity and profile is such that his criticism of Quigley will be taken seriously by many, and this one article will doubtless be drowned out in the clamor of articles repeating the Liberal MP’s views. Likewise, Quigley has no real way to defend himself against this kind of attack.
But there are few more causes more just than the defence of an innocent man; and I will not allow Turnbull to slander the NBN Co chief executive in this manner without defence. If you want to sack someone, Mr Turnbull, it is incumbent upon you to provide evidence and a rationale for doing so. Anything less is more than unethical — in our carefully regulated society, I would argue it’s criminal.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull