news Communications Minister Conroy this morning heavily criticised his shadow, Malcolm Turnbull, stating that the Liberal MP’s continued criticism of the management of the National Broadband Network Company constituted “witch hunts” and “personal attacks” which needed to stop.
Turnbull yesterday morning gave a lengthy speech adding to his already heavy criticism of the NBN project as well as his personal criticism of NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley, who Turnbull does not believe is qualified to lead the NBN effort and who he has criticised repeatedly in the past. Turnbull also heavily criticised a number of media commentators, who he accused of promulgating a pro-NBN “partisan ideology” and being “apologists” for what he said were the NBN’s failings.
“Two weeks ago I was accused of, and I quote, “slandering” Michael Quigley by expressing the opinion that, fine executive though he may be, he was not the right choice for NBN Co because he hadn’t previously managed either the deployment or day-to-day operation of a telecommunications network,” said Turnbull.
“Mr Quigley’s career was spent at a vendor of networking equipment, where he was extremely successful. The fortunes of a networking vendor depend on designing, bringing to market and supporting excellent products that meet the needs of customers, and persuading carriers to buy them. Mr Quigley has not worked for a telecommunications carrier. He hasn’t ever been responsible for a network rollout, or an operating telecommunications business. Nor as it happens have any of the current Directors of NBN Co – there, we have five former bankers, two former McKinsey consultants, two former equipment vendors, but no former telecom executives.”
“In my view,” Turnbull added, “this has contributed to NBN Co setting for itself milestone after unrealistic milestone that it has abjectly failed to achieve. It has contributed to NBN Co’s culture of gold-plating and excessive spending, because if capital is no constraint and those supervising the enterprise are not directly familiar with its task, the safest option is to choose the most costly option, and the easiest way to deal with mounting pressure and slipping schedules is to throw money at them.”
In a statement this morning, Conroy said Turnbull should “stop short-changing the Australian people and immediately release the Coalition’s broadband policy”. “In the first three quarters of this year Malcolm Turnbull has delivered 16 speeches, issued 34 media releases, made 1,268 tweets, and launched a survey, but he has not released a broadband policy,” Conroy said.
“In a recent 7.30 Report interview, Mr Turnbull refused to answer how much the Coalition’s broadband plans would cost. In the same interview, Mr Turnbull committed to providing downloads at 25 Mbps with only a lucky few achieving 80 Mbps. At yesterday’s Comms Day summit, Mr Turnbull again squibbed the chance of releasing a policy.”
“He instead launched another outrageous attack on the professional expertise of NBN Co, saying that he’d conduct a thorough inquiry into the management and governance of the company. The Australian people want a broadband policy from the Coalition, not personal attacks or witch hunts.”
Conroy said Turnbull’s recent launch of an online survey – which has reportedly received some 13,000 responses – into broadband around Australia was an attempt to cover up for what Conroy said was a lack of policy and the Liberal MP’s “inability to answer simple questions about the Coalition’s plans”.
“Mr Turnbull shouldn’t need a survey to know that no one in Australia can get a download speed of 100 Mbps using copper,” said Conroy. “Mr Turnbull also shouldn’t need a survey to know that no one in Australia would get a download speed of 100 Mbps using Telstra’s ageing copper network under his FTTN plan.”
“The contrast between the Gillard Government’s National Broadband Network and Mr Turnbull’s inadequate approach could not be clearer. Under Labor, 93% of all Australian premises can receive broadband services of 1 Gbps using NBN Co’s fibre to the home. Only Labor’s NBN will deliver Australians with the broadband that serves their needs into the future.”
I think it’s a little disingenuous of Conroy to say that Turnbull hasn’t released the Coalition’s broadband plan. Turnbull has detailed the Coalition’s plan in pretty substantial detail. While we don’t know the actual costs just yet, we do know that Turnbull would immediately call in the Productivity Commission to conduct a cost/benefit analysis into the situation, and would likely focus on moulding NBN Co’s fibre deployment into a fibre to the node-style deployment, likely retaining some of the satellite and wireless components of the deployment as well. In addition, fibre to the node-style rollouts are pretty well understood at this point globally, and also in Australia, where, as Turnbull pointed out yesterday, half a dozen plans have been advanced along these lines over the past half-decade or so.
Of course, Conroy is correct that Turnbull has not yet released a formal policy document regarding the Coalition’s rival NBN plan, and there are also mutterings out there that Turnbull’s quasi-policy statements in this portfolio may not have the full approval of the Shadow Cabinet under Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
In a broader sense, however, some of these issues are becoming overshadowed by Turnbull’s incessant and, on the basis of the evidence offered, groundless, attacks on NBN Co’s management. Under very difficult (some would say impossible) circumstances, with a constantly shifting political and regulatory landscape, there is a great deal of evidence that Quigley and his team at NBN Co are doing a very competent job in enacting Labor’s NBN vision. Despite this, however, Turnbull continues to attack Quigley personally, and has done so a number of times over the past several years.
There is a long convention in western democracies such as Australia’s that the Opposition of the day largely concentrate their criticism of the Government of the day on the political figures who lead the Government and abstaining from direct criticism of the public servants who enact their political masters’ will. The reasoning behind this convention is sound: After all, most Oppositions eventually win Government and need to work with many of those same public servants. Certainly, if Turnbuill ever became Communications Minister, he would need to work directly with the management of NBN Co.
Turnbull’s abandonment of this convention and his ongoing direct attacks on Quigley breaches are disturbing in this sense. They indicate a willingness of the Liberal MP to abandon this principle and take the fight to players who should not be directly involved in the political debates which Turnbull and Conroy have as their daily bread and butter. The management of NBN Co has no way to directly respond to Turnbull’s criticism; Conroy is really the only one who can do that.
I agree with Conroy that Turnbull’s attacks on NBN Co’s management have become something of a “witch hunt”. I, for one, would like to see debate in this area focused squarely on matters of policy and the delivery of policy, leaving personal attacks out of the arena – especially when they are directed at public servants who cannot fight back. To attack such figures personally is unseemly.