Turnbull opens defamation door
with inaccurate claims Quigley was “fired”


Question Time

news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has publicly and inaccurately claimed that Mike Quigley was “fired” from his role as chief executive of the National Broadband Network Company, in comments which appear to leave the Liberal MP open to the possibility of defamation action due to damage to Quigley’s reputation.

On Friday morning, NBN Co issued a media release stating that Quigley had decided to “retire from corporate life” after four years in which the executive had served as the founding chief executive of NBN Co, building the company around his appointment in mid-2009. The executive’s resignation from the role as not unexpected, given that he had served a normal period for a chief executive of a major company, and also given that he had already left early retirement to lead NBN Co.

Quigley’s accomplishments in the role were praised by both NBN Co’s board and the Federal Government. “NBN Co has been fortunate to have Mike as chief executive over the past four years,” said NBN Co chair Siobhan McKenna, in the same NBN Co statement. “His intellect, tenacity and knowledge of telecommunications products and network architecture have taken NBN Co from a policy vision to a successful operating entity.”

Communications Minister Anthony Albanese and Finance Minister Penny Wong also issued a separate statement thanking Quigley for his work at NBN Co. “Mr Quigley can be tremendously proud of what he has achieved. On behalf of the Government and the Australian people, we wish to thank Mike Quigley for helping build the infrastructure Australia needs for the 21st century,” the pair said.

However, immediately following the announcement of Quigley’s retirement, and in several subsequent interviews, Turnbull, who has been a long-time critic of the executive, inaccurately claimed Quigley was “fired”. “Revolving doors at NBN Co just as there are in the Labor caucus. How can project be a success when CEO gets fired?” Turnbull posted on Twitter.

Turnbull’s claim was immediately questioned by a number of respondents. “What indication is there he was fired?” asked Simon Sharwood, Asia-Pacific editor of technology media outlet The Register. “Documents so far say he retired.” Wolf Cocklin, social media coordinator at the City of Melbourne, added: “Do you have facts to prove he was fired, when he said he was resigning?”

Turnbull responded by highlighting articles recently published by the Financial Review, which had reported that NBN Co’s board, led by chair McKenna, had been seeking a new chief executive to replace Quigley, having engaged executive search firm Egon Zhender. “When the Chair has sought your removal and hired a headhunter to replace you, that is hardly an unforced resignation,” Turnbull wrote. “Lot more push than jump,” he commented in another tweet.

The Liberal MP repeated these comments in a doorstop press conference in Darwin on Friday. “The Chairman of NBN Co Siobhan McKenna has been trying to get Michael Quigley sacked for several months and she’s finally succeeded – she’s had a head hunter out looking for his replacement,” Turnbull said, according to a transcript available on his site. “This is a project that is ridden with discord. The board was fighting with the Chief Executive and now effectively they have no Chief Executive. The project is leaderless. And Mr Quigley has not been pushed out because he’s been doing a good job. He’s been pushed out of this company because it has not succeeded in meeting its targets.”

Turnbull was challenged on the issue by Sky News journalist David Lipson, in a broadcast on Friday. The transcript is also available online. “Siobhan McKenna today in a statement said the directors are proud of Mike’s achievement. What more evidence do you have that she was trying to push him out?” Lipson asked Turnbull.

“Well, you may well ask her whether she at any stage sought the support of the Government to remove Mr Quigley,” Turnbull responded. “That allegation has been made in the press and in Parliament and despite many opportunities she has never denied it. You may well ask her if she had so much confidence in Mr Quigley and is so heartbroken by his decision to go why it is that some time ago she hired a head hunting firm, Egon Zehnder, to look for his replacement. This is well before he said he was going to go. I mean you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that there was a rift between the board and Mr Quigley and that finally the board won out, or the chairman won out.”

However, despite Turnbull’s comments, it currently remains unclear whether NBN Co’s board was actively seeking to remove Quigley from his post as chief executive, as none of the board members who would have been involved in such a decision have commented publicly on the issue. In addition, it also remains possible that the company’s CEO executive search process was stimulated by Quigley informing the board ahead of time of his intention to resign, to ensure an orderly executive transfer process.

In either case, even if the board had informally asked for Quigley’s resignation, it would be inaccurate to state, as Turnbull did, that Quigley was “fired”. NBN Co’s board did not terminate Quigley’s contract; he resigned, triggering the resignation clauses of the contract.

As Turnbull did not make his comments regarding Quigley in Parliament (Parliament is not currently sitting), it is possible that the executive would have recourse to seek damages under Australian defamation law from the Liberal MP for damaging his reputation. This is because Turnbull’s comments did not attract Parliamentary Privilege, which normally protects elected politicians from legal action in cases of defamation.

A defamation fact sheet prepared by the University of Technology Sydney and available online states that there are three conditions for a defamation action to be brought. Firstly, the plaintiff must show that the material was published. In this case, Turnbull did publish the information on Twitter; communicating the allegations to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals. In addition, Turnbull’s claim has been widely reported in the media. Secondly, the material must identify the person aggrieved by it; in this case Turnbull did identify Quigley.

And lastly, the published material must exposes the person to ridicule; lower the person’s reputation in the eyes of members of the community; cause people to shun or avoid the person; or injures the person’s professional reputation. This last clause is inconclusive, and there are a number of defences against it — such as the claim being actually true — but a cursory reading of the law would appear to show Turnbull’s claim of a high-ranking corporate executive being “fired” rather than having retired from his position would have injured Quigley’s professional reputation.

Aside from the possibility of legal action, Turnbull’s claim has also exposed the MP to ridicule from his political rivals, for displaying a lack of sensitivity with respect to Quigley’s service to the Federal Government and the Australian community.

“I’ve seen some absurd comments from Malcolm Turnbull today,” said Communications Minister Anthony Albanese in a press conference in Sydney, “and I just want to say this: that Malcolm Turnbull was given the job by Tony Abbott of destroying the NBN. That was his key performance indicator. It’s one thing to attack a project in the way that he has day in and day out. Here, he has attacked an individual on the day that they’ve announced their retirement. An individual who came out of retirement in order to do a job for the nation, not for himself, and who donated his first year’s salary for medical research.”

“I say to Malcolm Turnbull, about time you showed a bit of class, mate. About time you showed a bit of class and didn’t engage in these destructive, negative politics against the NBN and against, indeed, anyone associated with the NBN.”

Albanese, who has previously indicated his support for Quigley, added: “I think Mike Quigley has been an outstanding CEO … The fact is that since Mike Quigley was appointed CEO at the NBN, two of the three major Australian telcos have changed their CEO and, indeed, a number of the networks have also changed their CEO. Indeed, three of the five television networks have changed their CEOs. So for Malcolm Turnbull’s latest bout of hysterical negativity, I think it should be dismissed for what it is. This is an orderly process which is consistent with the care that Mr Quigley has taken in terms of his presiding over the NBN.”

Turnbull’s comments also attracted strong criticism from respondents on Twitter. “This is [Malcolm Turnbull’s] magic universe where copper is as good as fibre, people are fired not retired, etc,” wrote futurist, inventor and startup executive Mark Pesce, who has clashed with Turnbull on the issue of the NBN previously. “Unless [Malcolm Turnbull has proof Quigley was fired, he should keep quiet,” added web 2.0, innovation and social media advisor Stephen Collins. “He’s a lawyer, and knows the consequences.”

Turnbull’s comments attacking Quigley on Friday represent only the most recent occasion on which the Liberal MP has publicly attacked the executive. Over the past several years, Turnbull has been active, usually in parliamentary settings, in implying impropriety in Quigley’s dealings in his previous career as a top-ranking executive at French networking vendor Alcatel-Lucent, especially with respect to the vendor’s Costa Rica division. However, US investigators investigating the situation in Costa Rica have never sought to interview Quigley over the issue. Quigley has maintained his innocence in the case, and there is currently no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the NBN Co chief executive.

As a journalist, I am very comfortable at this stage reporting that Turnbull’s direct statement last week that Quigley was “fired” was inaccurate, even in the case that Quigley might have been asked to resign before he decided to retire. As Turnbull, as a former leading executive himself, is clearly aware, the word “fired” has a very specific meaning in corporate life. In executive circles it refers to termination of contract. In this case, Quigley was very definitely not “fired”; he exercised the resignation clauses of his contract voluntarily.

I am also comfortable saying that Turnbull has left himself open to a defamation action here. I am sure the mild-mannered Quigley won’t pursue one, especially as he’s planning to retire from corporate life and is already a multi-millionaire, but as a journalist I am very, very conscious that the minute you publish an allegation that someone has been “fired”, unless you have direct and clear evidence that would stand up in court, you open yourself to defamation. That is why you’ll very rarely find the word “fired” used, even when an executive has been asked to resign. The term refers only to termination of contract, which did not occur here.

If I was advising Turnbull, I would recommend that the MP immediately use Twitter to retract the comment and apologise to Quigley, as well as offering Quigley the chance to publish a statement of his own through Turnbull’s Twitter account. I would also, given the national exposure Turnbull’s claim received, advise Turnbull to issue a media release on the issue retracting his comment. Of course, it’s doubtful Turnbull will do any of this. It’s very doubtful that Quigley would pursue action. Turnbull is likely relying on this. In this sense, the Member for Wentworth is very fortunate that Quigley has such a mild-mannered approach — virtually any other chief executive I know, especially one who was planning for future employment and wasn’t retiring, would have called their lawyer immediately. It’s a pretty clear-cut case.

So why did Turnbull do this, and why does he have such a poisonous, almost spiteful relationship with Quigley, who has always shown himself to be a man of integrity? I do have some thoughts on this. I’ll be exploring them at length in an article early next week. Stay tuned ;)

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. Knowing Quigley, he is unlikely to choose this recourse., however he has every reason and right to do so. He has been relentlessly and unashamedly persecuted.

  2. Turnbull has clearly overplayed this. Perhaps the Coalition is getting nervous.

    I don’t think Mike Quigley will pursue this but it would be bloody funny if he did. It could tip the balance in the election and keep the FTTP dream alive. A worthy parting shot perhaps?

    • They *are* getting nervous. The polls are backflipping since Rudd returned and he has all the momentum. Abbott is getting fidgety. No doubt he’s playing right into Rudds hands by perpetuating the same negative politics that Rudd is lambasting him for to great success.

      The knee jerk reactions to the polls coming from the Coalition front benchers is reaching violent levels.

  3. Just another the shadow ministry shows itself as thugs.

    Disgusting treatment of a cable CEO and someone who showed the true spirit of public service.

  4. I had no respect for Turnbull left anyway. But if I did, this would’ve ground it to dust.

    Quigley did his job and did it well. He was always polite and courteous to Turnbull. The least he could’ve done was thank him for his service or even just frigging wish him well!!

  5. Why did Turnbull do this?
    Maybe… Firstly, because he has some ethics deficiencies.
    Secondly, because he thinks he can get away with it.
    Thirdly, because he thinks that most of MSM will not hold him accountable.
    Fourthly, far too often, he lacks sound judgement.
    Finally, because for some reason, he wants to appear to be more like a right wing shock jock, Abbott at his worst, to dispel his all too often suave, snobby, arrogant persona to try and win a few more votes.
    But most of all, because unfortunately, it appears that it is in his Professional DNA to go for the kill, when he sees a sign of weakness and he has alot to fear, in being found out for being the fraud in fraudband.

  6. Regarding Mr Turnbull’s comments that ….. “That allegation has been made in the press and in Parliament and despite many opportunities she [Siobhan McKenna] has never denied it..

    Imo that comment could very easily be seen as an attempt to ‘wedge’ or even intimidate Ms McKenna.

    There is an implicit challenge being made here by a very powerful Federal MP, a high level businessman with extensive contacts at the highest corporate levels for McKenna to either support him, repudiate him, or remain silent and allow him to continue with his currently unfounded claims.

    If she confirms his claims, then she endorses Turnbull and could expect to retain a degree of favour in the future, if she remains silent, same thing but perhaps expect less goodwill. However if she repudiates his claims, then she would know she has created a major enemy. But whichever course McKenna takes could have profound implications regarding her future career.

    And I have no doubt that Turnbull is fully aware of the above. And is in fact using the circumstance to his own advantage without hesitation.

  7. As I said to Malcolm via Twitter, if MQ was fired, why is he still the NBN Co CEO?

    If be was fired he’d have finished that day even dismissed CEO’s don’t stick around after their dismissal!

  8. Turnbull is only giving Mckenna and her powerful media, entertainment, and thought shaper masters, more leverage over Turnbull, should they need to use it.

  9. Turnbull sometimes forgets he is not in a court of law anymore.
    His bullying tendencies are a real worry. A worry for the voters and not doubt, some senior headkickers at Federal Liberal Party HQ, who have much to fear if he ever gets to rule the roost again.

  10. I’ve lost all respect for Turnbull.
    He’d have to work damned hard to get any back

  11. a ceo of a gbe like nbnco would not just spring their resignation on the board, its much more likely that mckenna knew quigley was going to retire (resignation clauses usually have notice timeframes built in) and hired the headhunter firm to find a replacement.

    turnbull must really hate quigley to keep attacking him personally, makes you wonder why doesnt it.

    • Maybe more just trying to show how powerful he is, and to warn off others for supporting something that that does not fit in with his plan. More about power and fear than hate.

  12. Malcolm Turnbull:

    Why it is that some time ago she hired a head hunting firm, Egon Zehnder, to look for his replacement. This is well before he said he was going to go.

    Erm, because it was probably known to her and/or the board, and they were doing the responsible thing with succession planning? Quigley’s public announcement was hardly likely to be the first they heard of it… and Malcolm bloody-well knows this kind of thing.

    • And we all know what he’d be doing if they HAD NOT been looking for a new CEO.

      “Turnbull attacks NBNco for lack of foresight as paralyzed company fails to find replacement for CEO.”

  13. “I am sure the mild-mannered Quigley won’t pursue one”
    Oh I don’t know, he’s retired and rich, and may well jump at the chance to get one over on the guy who slandered him and basically made his job as hard as possible so often. Especially as doing so might boost the Labor party’s standing, so by extension strengthening the chances of the project he’s put so much into and clearly believes in.

      • It might be worse for Turnbull and the Coalition actually if Quigley doesn’t initiate a defamation claim here in that Turnbull’s only ability to show that he was not defaming (lying) Quigley is to have a court prove that he wasn’t.

        This is a lose-lose for Turnbull now and is most likely going to follow him more so than the UteGate debacle ever has.

  14. I think that Turnbull has done this because Quigley is an easy target. He knows that Quigley is too much of a gentleman to fight back.

    Like all bullies, this is a red flag for Turnbull. He has the ethics of a snake.

  15. pretty standard in the corporate world
    Annouce Plans to board, board starts looking at plans for succession/replacement, board appoint headhunter to find someone, headhunter finds people, board/quigley/etc interview people, once candidate is found they are bought up to speed, announcement is made of new CEO, quigley/board transfer role, quigley retires.

    pretty standard thing really.

    the only thing would be if it were a forced retirement/resignation in which his option was to retire to preserve his credientails but without evidence this cannot be proven and it is definetly not a firing.

    if someone if fired they are usually removed from premises that day so they cannot do damage to the company/assetts/employees/etc.

  16. Poor Form

    It brings to mind the cause of the GFC, duly whitewashed. Poorly regulated financial market and institutions, crooked mortgage brokers and banks. But what did the damage was the Merchant Bankers, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Co who packed those bad debts as AAA securities and flogged them off to the gullible trusting investors with the assistance of the Financial advisors and gurus and especially the media as their promoters. Those Merchant Bankers made a killing, the rest of the world has borne the consequences.

    IMO we have a Merchant Banker who was employed by one of those institutions flogging another skilfully constructed attractive looking Package with the assistance of the finance sector and the media, in the process bullying and pressuring any opposition

    Deja Vu anyone

  17. ”I’m not suggesting politicians are innately less accurate or truthful than anyone else but rather that the system is not constraining – in fact it is all too often rewarding – spin, exaggeration, misstatements,” he said. Given the challenges facing the world, he said politicians had a responsibility ”to explain the big issues of our time”, not dumb them down into soundbites that treated people with ”contempt”.

    ”Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate and yet, with the decline of journalism, less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to frustrate it. Blatant misrepresentations, exaggerations or outright lies in politics should in theory be easily revealed. We don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust.”

    Malcolm Turnbull – Sept 5, 2012


    You, sir, are a hypocrite of the highest order…

    Mike should do it for the exact reason Malcolm used in his lecture, “a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate and yet, with the decline of journalism, less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to frustrate it.”

    • Great find, that quote. It would be nice to see Malcolm Turnbull live by his own words… or eat them.

  18. Please note that he already has started to target Siobhan McKenna

    “we know that Siobhan McKenna, the chairman, who by the way has no experience in the telecoms sector, she’s never built a network or run a network, she’s a management consultant. So there’s real questions about her capacity to chair this business”.

    Continuing the simplistic black and white, everything LNP is good but everything Labor (or connected in anyway to Labor) is inherently bad.

  19. Can we file a defamation suit against Turnbull for Mike Quigley?

    I’d love to see the fucking germ burn, he is a dog of the highest order.

  20. I called it the moment I read Turnbull’s statement, but I’m surprised how many others have considered it (and publicly speculated on it), too. Usually I’m at the left end of idealism with calls like this ;-)

    Glad to see such strong support for Mr Quigley and almost universal ridicule for Turnbull and his hateful vitriol.

  21. As a communications expert with 30 years in the industry and an avid fan of the “Liberal” Turnbull as opposed the the “Tory” Abbott, I think Turnbull has overplayed this and been very poorly advised technically.

    There is absolutely no doubt Fibre is the future and to all those naysayers, just let me say one phrase; “near speed of light”.

    Copper can never achieve that and the open ended Media streaming systems the world will use cannot in the future, occur over copper at real world standards.

    See the light Malcolm and correct your assertions.

  22. As an employee of a very large Comms Co. I want to say “Thanks Mike Quigley”. You did a great job under extreme attack and have a lot to be proud of.

    Well done and all the very best in your next endeavours.

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