news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday actively avoided taking questions from the media about whether it was unethical to appoint several ex-Telstra executives with personal connections to the Liberal MP but little experience with network infrastructure rollouts to help NBN Co undertake the Strategic Review into its future broadband model.
Over the past week, the Financial Review and The Australian newspapers have revealed that several former Telstra executives with close personal connections to Turnbull have been appointed to assist NBN Co with a Strategic Review of its current and potential future models for deploying the National Broadband Network. The two executives are JB Rousselot and Justin Milne.
Rousselot was most recently the executive director of digital media and IPTV at Telstra, a position from which he departed in May 2013. Prior to that position, Rousselot held a number of other senior positions in Telstra over a period of a decade, including a post as executive director of Telstra’s Media division. Before this period, the executive was chief executive of IP telephony startup Interline, as well as working in investment (in the Australasian Media and Communications Fund), as well as working as a consultant at Booz Allen and in entertainment (Disney).
Crikey reported in June (in an article which predicted the appointment of both Milne and Rousselot to help Turnbull reshape the NBN) that Rousselot has a deep history with Turnbull, having formerly worked both at OzEmail, which Turnbull helped found, as well as Turnbull’s own boutique advisory firm Turnbull and Partners. However, in none of his many roles over his career did Rousselot work directly on deploying fundamental network infrastructure of the type NBN Co is rolling out.
Yesterday morning the Financial Review added former Telstra executive Justin Milne to the list.
The executive was chief executive of early Australian ISP OzeMail from 1999 to 2002, in the years immediately after it was listed on the NASDAQ and the Australian Stock Exchange with Turnbull’s assistance (Turnbull helped fund and run the company throughout the 1990’s), and the pair worked at OzEmail at the same time. Turnbull sold his stake in OzEmail for $57 million in 1999 as the company was bought by US telco WorldCom.
Subsequently, Milne went on to work in senior positions at Telstra, leading the company’s BigPond ISP division and also, later, its media division, throughout the years until May 2010, when he left the telco. However, in none of those roles did the executive directly work on significant network infrastructure rollouts at Telstra.
Milne has also retained links to Turnbull over the past decade. For example, Milne was one of the speakers at a forum held by the Liberal MP in August 2010 in the suburb of Paddington in his electorate on Labor’s controversial mandatory Internet filter policy, which Milne was also personally against.
In addition, Milne is known to be a supporter of the Coalition’s FTTN model. In April this year, the executive told Business Review Weekly he would choose FTTN over FTTP because it was “orders of magnitude” faster (in terms of time to rollout) and cheaper to deploy.
Crikey reported as early as June that Rousselot and Milne were being set up for roles with NBN Co. At the time, Turnbull denied any commitments had been made to anyone.
Yesterday afternoon, Turnbull attended an event in the Sydney suburb of Paddington to launch a new technology startup incubator space formed by Telstra. However, the Minister did not take questions after speaking at the event. Given the fact that technology journalists from most major media outlets were present at the event, Delimiter requested Turnbull hold a brief doorstop interview following the proceedings to address the appointments of Milne and Rousselot to NBN Co, as well as other matters. It is normal behaviour for Ministers to take questions briefly in doorstop interviews after events of this nature attended by the media, and Turnbull has done so regularly in the past.
However, the request was declined, with Turnbull’s spokesperson citing time pressures, and Turnbull left very shortly after the formal section of the Telstra event was over.
The Minister also declined to comment on the issue to the Financial Review when the newspaper published its initial report on Milne’s appointment this week. A spokesperson for NBN Co also declined to comment to Delimiter yesterday on the issue of either appointment.
Delimiter has filed a Freedom of Information request with NBN Co seeking any documents pertaining to the two executives’ appointment at the company.
My full thoughts on the appointment of former Telstra executives Justin Milne and JB Rousselot to aid NBN Co in conducting its Strategic Review can be found in this extensive article on the subject in Delimiter 2.0 (subscriber content). A sample paragraph gives you the flavour of what I think about the issue:
“NBN Co’s Strategic Review will be conducted by a cluster of ex-Telstra executives with prior personal connections to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party, supported by external consultants. Does anyone still believe the result will be independent, objective and ‘technology-neutral’?”
Do I think Turnbull should publicly discuss these appointments? Yes, I do, if he wants to avoid the perception of impropriety. It shouldn’t be a big deal for the Communications Minister to discuss the appointment of two executives he has a personal history with to senior roles at NBN Co.