NBN: Isn’t Siobhan McKenna just doing her job?



blog One can’t help but be amused by the ruckus which the Financial Review newspaper has raised (and which the Opposition is echoing with vitriolic fervour) around the renewed attention which NBN Co’s board has reportedly been paying towards the stewardship of the National Broadband Network Company, in the wake of the departure of previous board chair Harrison Young and the appointment of his replacement, former McKinsey consultant and Lachlan Murdoch associate Siobhan McKenna.

If you believe the AFR’s reporting, McKenna is actively engaged in a “push to replace” Quigley. Earlier this week the newspaper reported that the executive was discussing the executive’s performance with other directors and senior NBN Co executives, as well as seeking additional internal information about NBN Co’s operations. And then this morning we get a new article on the subject, characterising a board meeting at NBN Co this week thus:

“Toxic board relationships and asbestos scares: it was a fun-packed agenda at 100 Arthur Street, North Sydney on Thursday … The atmosphere was a little awkward to say the least. The Australian Financial Review had just revealed that McKenna had approached other directors to test support for Quigley”

iTNews was up late last night listening to the Budget Estimates hearing on the NBN, and reports that the Opposition was relentless in trying to investigate the relationship between Quigley and McKenna, and whether the NBN Co chief executive had recently gone through a formal performance review. iTNews’ report was quite calm, taking a somewhat amused tone with the Opposition’s shenanigans, but again, if you read the AFR’s corresponding yarn this morning, entitled “Conroy avoids NBN performance review questions”, you get the feeling that the Minister is trying to hide something.

However, from my perspective, it’s hard to really believe that what’s going on here, if the reports about McKenna’s approach to NBN Co are true, is anything unusual — in fact, if you examine what independent third parties think about the role of board chairman, it would appear that McKenna’s recently reported moves are completely … bog standard.

A useful briefing document (PDF) outlining the typical duties of board chairmen can be found on the website of Boardroom Partners, a local board search and advisory company. The document makes clear that aside from the normal administrative roles such as chairing company board meetings, ensuring the proper working of the board itself and maintaining proper shareholder relations, the board chairman is normally explicitly tasked with:

“Monitoring the Chief Executive’s performance against established criteria/measures of financial and operating performance, in conjunction with the Board; Acting as counsellor, adviser and listener to the Chief Executive and, where necessary, other members of the Board; and ensuring a sound management structure through the appointment of the best management the Company can afford.”

In short, it’s a core part of McKenna’s basic role that she keep tabs on Quigley; the importance of doing so in a massive infrastructure undertaking such as the NBN is even more pressing. I would, in fact, be surprised, given the constant scrutiny to which NBN Co is subject, if McKenna was not constantly in touch with Quigley and other executives at NBN Co, in an effort to ensure the management of the company is keeping the rollout on track. That is, after all, one of the most fundamental roles of company boards and chairmen; to keep the company accountable to its shareholders, and especially to keep its executives accountable.

It is a matter of public record that NBN Co’s fibre rollout is lagging. In this context, it is entirely appropriate, and just as entirely uncontroversial, that the company’s chair would be keeping its management on a tight leash. McKenna, along with the rest of the board, is effectively Quigley’s boss; more so even than NBN Co’s ultimate shareholder ministers in the form of Stephen Conroy and Finance Minister Penny Wong.

Personally, I view McKenna’s perceived actions as basic, expected corporate behaviour. I suspect they are only being viewed as unusual at this point because, well, let’s face it — NBN Co’s previous chairman Harrison Young didn’t precisely take much of an active role that external observers could perceive. McKenna may just be sticking closer to the letter of the law for this high-profile project, which is to be expected and a very good thing. Of course the mainstream media loves to beat up every tiny issue around NBN Co into an epic disaster of national proportions — such as the small amount of asbestos discoverd in a small area in Penrith associated with Telstra’s pits being used for the NBN rollout. But that doesn’t make McKenna’s approach inherently controversial. I suspect some of those commenting about this situation have had little exposure to this area of corporate life; journalists don’t usually sit on boards or run companies, after all.

To be honest, I think we should view McKenna’s actions as precisely what they appear to be: A competent executive in a chair role holding their company’s management accountable for a sensitive and high-profile infrastructure deployment. In short, corporate business as usual, hyped up to epic proportions by a media which loves to fling any mud it can find at individuals of strong character such as NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley. Quelle surprise ;)

Image credit: NBN Co


  1. Maybe if she had been on board from the start agitating like this the NBNCo wouldn’t be so far behind.
    Sounds like she is doing a great job!

  2. While I do agree with your analysis of the situation Renai it did cross my mind when the news started to come into the media that McKenna may be trying to sure up a position under a Coalition broadband network. While unlikely to effect the Board/Quigley prior to the election, it has given the opposition more of their FUD ammunition to target the NBN pre-election.

  3. Why even approach the other board members, when it all turns on the support of Stephen Conroy? And having this “news” leak can only embarrass the current Gov. for no purpose, other then political.

  4. I’m sure Lachlan is keeping her well informed of what her role is, maybe his dads even tweeting her in his usual charmingly eccentric manner?

  5. All will be revealed if the LNP win on Sep 14. Malcolm Turnbull, the LNP & the public will get to look under the hood of the NBN Co. I don’t think it will be a pretty sight.

  6. It would be sad day if Mike Quigley, if sacked bt the chairperson, due to the anti NBN media, any small issue its blown out of all proportion, give Mike a break!

    • You are joking. Quigley must go – he has failed to meet a single rollout target AND he was playing political games when he announced bringing forward Gigabit fibre.

      • Rollout targets were delayed by contractors, the same contractors the LNP will need to use. How is gigabit fibre a political game? The network and all the hardware have been designed to support it.

        • Scarlet must have insider knowledge: he doesn’t vote try hard upper middle class for nought!

  7. Hmm, NBNco releases update that shows it may exceed June targets, and the only NBN headlines in the mainstream media are about asbestos and a possible spill of Quigley… It smells like message control by Uncle Rupert & friends, to me, especially if you consider that the asbestos issue has been known about for months.

    • Not only that but a very good uptake to boot, highest 64+%, some of the newer sites are extremely good

      • Isn’t there some information being put about that they would only get CLOSE to their target by buying existing private fibre which happens to pass a few tens of thousands of premises? That isn’t the same as what they had scheduled to do, which was lay fibre past 371-odd thousand premises. Again, playing with words, shifting targets, lack of transparency and oversight, poor contract management – generally acting like a branch of the ALP, in other words

        • Isn’t there some information being put about that they would only get CLOSE to their target by buying existing private fibre

          I think only The Australian would actually say that. NBNCo is actually ahead of the revised targets without even factoring in the iiNet/TransACT purchase…

  8. why doesnt someone just bloody well ask her instead of making up reasons for her actions?

  9. Of course the mainstream media loves to beat up every tiny issue around NBN Co into an epic disaster of national proportions

    Even the ABC jumps in these days (http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2013/s3771736.htm), though way down the bottom of the piece they do actually include a comment from Bill Shorten pointing out that the ducts, workers and repair work are all Telstras. They then close the article with “If the NBN Co is shown to have any liability for asbestos exposure it would add huge costs well into the future. ” :/

    In fact I find most main-stream news services these days pretty well worthless due to their reporting suffering from such heavy editorialising.

    Journalists are supposed to report the news/facts, not manufacture it…

  10. “Of course the mainstream media loves to beat up every tiny issue around NBN Co into an epic disaster of national proportions — such as the small amount of asbestos discoverd in a small area in Penrith associated with Telstra’s pits being used for the NBN rollout.”

    This comment shows such a lack of understanding of the issues involved with asbestos or any dangerous good of this nature that it is breath taking. Yes they are small amounts of asbestos by industrial quantities, but those quantities are still significantly above exposure limits for human if the fibres become airborne, and from the way they have been disposed of, the possibility is very high.

    When dealing with these dangerous goods, there is no excuse for endangering the general public; the liability does not stop with just the contractor or supervisor but can travel all the way up to directors and CEO’s depending on the consequences and policies that have been put in place.

    Asbestos can cause lifelong problems from very low level exposure, and dug up fibres have been left in semi confined walkways near schools. This is a substance that is more dangerous than most chemicals. It should not be dissmissed as a “small” problem; when you see people in full hazmat suits cleaning it up you know that they take it seriously.

    I would not go near asbestos without a respirator and knowing that it was saturated preferably with disposable clothes so that I knew i was not taking fibres home with me.

    • I concur that the health issues of asbestos can never be underestimated – no matter how ‘little’ the amount is perceived. Although relatively benign when undisturbed, when airborne fibres are released, the health implications can be horrendous. As an aside, I personally know that the ADF has taken extensive measures in the last decade, to rid asbestos from use.

      • What is not being mentioned is the amount of asbestos in the community, apart from eaves and walls and sub tile flooring, meter boxes, garages and sheds (usually not painted over to seal them), there were many fibro homes (especially in housing commission homes of a particular era )and fibro roofs ( many now clad or bricked over) and each time there are gusty winds the insulation is disturbed and fine dust wafts in through the vents from the asbestos dust and wool insulation, still in situ (fibreglass wool and dust insulation is even worse),

    • This is Telstra’s fault and has nothing to do with NBN Co. Telstra are responsible for pit remediation. Asbestos isn’t a problem if properly handled.

      • So simplistic, but you miss the actual isue.

        “Asbestos isn’t a problem if properly handled.”

        It wasn’t.

        • Back in the good old days when men were men – oh sorry I Digress
          Telecom had an Asbestos removal program, Pits, ducts/pipes were steadily and slowly replace, should have been well finished by now if it had continued (Not a simple process replacing pits/ducts and pipes – all cables have to be removed, pits/pipes/ducts replaced, then the copper replaced and reconnected – temporary service provided in the meantime)
          Then Privatisation, restructures, redundancies (including Pit/pipe maintenance /QC and Asbestos replacement0, the new breed of seagull management flocked in as the skilled people who knew the network and issues left.
          Of course asbestos replacement is expensive, one of the first thing to be cut – profit far more important, besides not an important issue.
          Now the sky is full of chickens flocking home to roost (2Bill Fibro/Asbestos Pits and all the pipes connecting them)

          • Sorry, approx 2Mill NOT 2Bill, some small residential Pits some major street ones

        • No, I didn’t but you missed my point and Renai’s. Did you even read the link in the article? No, clearly you didn’t. This was one outside case of which Telstra have taken measures to prevent it from happening again. This is also something that could have been triggered by routine Telstra maintenance, irrespective of the rollout.

          • I have read the article linked to, and different news reports. I get a strong impression that you have not handled dangerous goods or been in a situation where your life depends upon someone handling these goods properly. When levels as low as 2-10ppm can have serious health consequences you learn that when it comes to exposures levels “small” can and will have different meanings.

            Considering that multiple workplace safety bodies are launching investigations (into more than “one” incident, Penrith, Ballarat, dumping in our National parks) it is about a lot more than whether it is the NBN Co’s fault or Telstra’s but about the level of exposure to the public. What will change to ensure that this cannot happen again. All those questions need to be answered and measure put in place before playing the blame game.

          • I agree Michael.

            The big issue here isn’t the blame game, it’s the health implications.

            I think however what is being highlighted here by posters is, that for some (normally the same people) to try to make political points against NBNCo in relation to pits and ducts which have been in place many decades pre-NBNCo and are still owned by Telstra is disingenuous.

          • I hear what you’re saying Michael, and you’re right. It IS a potentially serious health issue. Which is why it was basically tools down until it was sorted.

            But the flipside is that its 1 house out of hundreds of thousands (or millions), so when compared to the scale of the project, its a blip, nothing more. With potentially serious repercussions for those dealing with the blip, but a blip nonetheless.

            From that angle, its a small story blown out of proportion. In much the same way product recalls are overkill just to make sure, this has the same mentality written all over it. Which is a good thing, but the story doesnt need this level of exposure.

          • @ Alex,

            As people have said it is Telstra’s issue and NBN Co should not be involved at all except to the extent of what has changed over the past decade or more when telstra was maintaining the ducts without any issues and the rollout. What lead to these issues? Something has changed and part of preventing any further incidents is identifying the causes and then making appropriate changes.

            @ GongGav

            It is more than just 1 site where asbestos has been mishandled; from memory there are investigations underway in NSW, VIC, Tas and WA. The other issue is that when a subcontractor has mishandled it, an audit should conducted on their work to ensure that it is not a systematic issue as a lot of these asbestos cases have only been discovered by accident or the general public.

            In addition, at one site the scope for people to be affected can be quite large. All it takes to put someone at risk is to inhale the fibres and once there are exposes edges from fibres that have been removed from a duct that are not wetted, they can become airborne. This means that anyone in the vicinity can inhale them, anyone can carry the particles on their clothing. Leaving them in a public environment could potentially expose dozens of people not to mention the workers themselves (assuming they were not wearing proper PPE) but no one will know for sure for years.

  11. In fact considering the Very well known issues with asbestos in the Pits and Ducts I would say that the NBN team negotiated very well.
    The 30 year lease of the pits pipes and ducts is on the basis of Fit for Purpose. It is up to Telstra to make the pits/pipes and ducts fit for purpose , which of course must include make safe and be done in a manner which is safe for the workers and the Public.

    I suggest the increasingly problematic asbestos issue will be a point of discussion , as well as certain sectors preference for a FTTN solution that won’t enable competition to a highly profitable monopoly – the term “serve two masters “comes to mind

    Yes the FTTN avoids the disturbance/remediation at initial install/provision in the customer loop. However as soon as some bignoting business or individual has the temerity to order a FOD service (PROMISED to be AVAILABLE) – it will still have to be done, however only as a limited one off. Horrendously inefficient and expensive regardless of M.T’s wonderful delusions.

    So in fact considering the delays from negotiation and remediation, NBN is going well, so McKenna needs to be certain she knows what she is doing.

  12. Hmm. From reports over the weekend it looks as though I may have been wrong about that asbestos issue — it is starting to look like a very large issue indeed, for Telstra particularly.

    • Yep, and it’s a non-partisan issue as well, in that it will still be a major problem for Telstra regardless of going FTTP/FTTN.

      There’s even calls now for Telstra to setup an asbestos fund like Hardy had to…

    • As usual News Ltd and the LNP are trying to make it the Labors or the NBN’s fault. Gawd the issue is decades old and well known in the industry. Telstra has been paying Asbestos compensation to its workers for over 20 Years.

      The issue was specifically covered in the NBN/Telstra negotiations as part of the remediation process.

      Since privatisation and cost cutting at Telstra, the can has been constantly kicked further down the road, Sorry end of line, account due

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