news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the National Broadband Network Company to stop entering into major contracts that would affect a Coalition Government, due to what Turnbull described as being a form of the traditional government ‘caretaker mode’ that keeps governments running during elections.
Historically in Australia, the so-called ‘caretaker’ mode of government occurs during a period starting when Federal Parliament is dissolved by the Governor-General before a Federal Election. It finishes after the election, when the next ministers are appointed, and sees the Government avoid making major policy decisions or undertaking projects that would see any incoming government committed to them. The period is guided by a document issued by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PDF).
However, in a radio interview yesterday on ABC Radio National (the full transcript is available online), Turnbull backed comments earlier yesterday by Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop that as Prime Minister Julia Gillard had disclosed the date of the next Federal Election as being September 14, the Federal Government should now be operating in what Bishop described as a “virtual caretaker mode”.
Turnbull said there were some areas of government activity where the issue was particularly important. “I’m just saying this is just common sense prudence, if I was the chief executive of NBN Co in these circumstances, or if I was a director of that company I would be careful and try to avoid in so far as I could entering into contracts that might be seen as in effect shackling the right of the new government,” he said.
Turnbull’s comments come as Shadow Climate Change Minister Greg Hunt has also written to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation warning the group not to make any investments prior to the election; it is slated to receive its funding on 1 July this year.
ABC Radio National Host Waleed Aly challenged Turnbull on his assertion regarding the so-called “virtual caretaker mode”, which appears to have no historical basis in Australian Government. “But you know as well as I do that all of that was true irrespective of the announcement of a date for the election there was nothing about that announcement that puts us in caretaker mode virtual or otherwise,” said Waly.
In addition, the Radio National host referred Turnbull to a major speech Turnbull made in September last year about the need for more integrity in politics. “… you gave a speech that I think was well received and widely reported and deservedly reported widely on the conduct of politics and the importance of that kind of integrity and honesty in politics … And yet here you are, it seems, defending it,” Aly said.
Turnbull’s comments are not the first time the caretaker provisions have arisen with regard to the NBN during an election campaign. In August 2010, ahead of that year’s Federal Election, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley was strongly criticised by some, including the writer of this article, for delivering a stinging attack on the Coalition’s rival broadband policy at the time.
Just days before the Federal Election, Quigley directly attacked the Coalition’s claims at the time about the NBN project being a “white elephant”. The executive also revealed, in the days before the election, that the NBN’s fibre network would eventually be upgradable to 1Gbps speeds, in comments which were seized upon by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy as demonstrating the merits of the NBN policy over the Coalition’s policy.
Malcolm Turnbull, you should flat out be ashamed. I have lost a great deal of respect for you with your comments this week about the need for a “virtual caretaker mode” ahead of the Federal Election. Just four months ago you gave a major speech calling for more integrity in politics. I quote:
“There is almost nothing more important to good government and our nation‟s future than the quality, honesty and clarity of political discourse: how we explain policy challenges and trade-offs, and educate voters about the constraints we have to work within…how we express our position, our basis for reaching it and why it differs from that of our opponents if this is the case…how we communicate changes in policy and their implications.
Yet paradoxically, there is almost nowhere else in our national life where the incentives to be untruthful or to purposefully mislead are so great, and the adverse consequences of such behaviour so modest.
A lawyer who misrepresents the evidence will sooner or later be found out and may also be thrown out, perhaps for good. The consequences for business people who misrepresent their financial results, fail to disclose material events or make false claims about their wares can be extremely severe – plenty, some of them very well-known, have spent time in prison.”
I also note the following paragraphs:
“And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.”
Well, Mr Turnbull, consider your challenge met. Your claim that NBN Co, seven months ahead of the next Federal Election, is obligated to enter some kind of “virtual caretaker mode” are a flat out misrepresentation of the situation. Your comments represent an attempt to mislead the Australian public, and a gross exaggeration of the duty of NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley when it comes to the need to pay attention to the political process.
The facts, Mr Turnbull, are that there is in fact no law requiring that caretaker mode provisions be undertaken in our Federal Government; only custom. It is also debatable whether that custom — represented by a set of guidelines issued by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet — applies to NBN Co, and they certainly do not apply in any way, shape or form until the Governor-General dissolves Parliament, likely in about six months.
Until that stage, and likely even after it, NBN Co is under no obligation whatsoever to pay attention to the Federal Election process at all, or in fact any other political process: Until its standing orders issued by the Communications Minister of the day change that fact.
Moreover, the fact that you would attempt to use such a flimsy argument to delay and interfere with a $37 billion, decade-long national infrastructure project which is critical for Australia’s next 50 years of telecommunications usage reveals a lot about your own personal integrity. Whether or not you agree that the NBN represents good policy, it is not good practice to interfere with such an important project in this way purely to achieve your own political aims.
Welcome to the harsh new world of fact-checking, Mr Turnbull. I suggest you get used to it. We’ll be here all year.