news As expected, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon confirmed former Telstra and Optus chief executive Ziggy Switkowski had been appointed as executive chairman of NBN Co, with most of the company’s board departing and NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley to leave the company.
The announcement was made at a press conference in Canberra this afternoon, where Turnbull described Switkowski as “one of the most experienced telecommunications executives in Australia”, noting that the executive had led both Telstra and Optus as chief executive as well as having a subsequent “distinguished” career as a company director and chairman.
Switkowski, Turnbull noted, had met with retiring NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley today to conduct a handover process. Effectively, until the new board of NBN Co is fully appointed and appoints a new long-term chief executive replace Quigley, Switkowski will be acting as chief executive of the company.
Turnbull also confirmed that only two directors of NBN Co’s existing board, former Mallesons partner Alison Lansley and investment banker and New South Wales senior public bureaucrat Dr Kerry Schott, would remain on NBN Co’s board as part of the transition process. A new full board will be appointed to NBN Co by the Government shortly, Turnbull said, with Lansley and Schott having “very relevant skills” which would be useful to the board and bring “an element of continuity”.
The Communications Minister said the new Coalition Government was determined to see the NBN completed “sooner, cheaper for the Government and more affordably for consumers”, and that it was “very committed to the NBN”. Turnbull declined to comment on any other potential board appointments to NBN Co, apart from to note that many of the projected candidates outed by the Financial Review newspaper had been inaccurately named.
However, questions remain about the extent to which Switkowski is qualified to lead NBN Co’s predominantly construction-focused operation.
Switkowski only served as Optus chief executive for a year in the late 1990’s, in a period in which Optus had predominantly finished deploying its HFC cable network. The executive served at Telstra for half a decade through to 2004, but Telstra did not engage in significant network construction activities similar to NBN Co’s rollout, during that period.
During Switkowski’s time at Telstra, the only substantial hard fixed-line telecommunications construction efforts the company was involved in included laying international submarine cables, and backhaul fibre rollouts connecting regions, both of which are qualitatively different from the street by street access network construction which makes up the bulk of NBN Co’s work. The company’s main network work, apart from these piece jobs, was actually the ongoing maintenance of its copper network.
Secondly, Switkowski exited both companies under acrimonious circumstances. His departure from Optus came prematurely and in the middle of corporate chaos, and the executive was asked to leave in December 2004 by Telstra’s then-board, led by chair Donald McGauchie. Part of the problem was Switkowski’s bad relationship with McGauchie, who had taken the chair role in April that year. But part of the problem was that Switkowski, with aborted plans to buy newspaper group Fairfax and TV channel Nine in the picture, had not been able to articulate a clear future direction for Telstra.
Since Switkowski’s departure from Telstra in 2004, he is not known to have held a role in the Australian or global telecommunications sector.
Asked about these specific issues today, Turnbull said Switkowski had run “a very large company, Telstra”, which constantly rolled out telecommunications networks, as well as running Optus during its HFC construction period. In addition, Turnbull said Switkowski had not been appointed as “head of construction”, but as head of NBN Co as a whole, which was a very different role.
Turnbull said in general, with respect to the Coalition’s tenure leading the NBN project, the project had “stepped out the world of spin and politics and ideology” and into the world of business and “making rational decisions”.