news Infrastructure Australia has revealed it did not consult more than a handful of sources or organisations when making its recommendation in mid-February that the National Broadband Network be split up into pieces and sold off to the private sector.
In mid-February, Infrastructure Australia — Australia’s independent authority on infrastructure — released what it billed as a 15-year Infrastructure Plan and associated priority list, marking what the agency said was 18 months of work (presumably since the 2013 Federal Election). The agency said the “first of its kind” plan delivered a roadmap to “more affordable, innovative and competitive infrastructure”.
In its document (PDF, page 110), Infrastructure Australia stated baldly that over the medium-term period, the Federal Government should “transfer NBN Co to private ownership” and recommends the NBN company be split up into parts along geographical or technical lines.
However, it did not include any specific basis for making this recommendation.
In the wake of the recommendation, Delimiter asked Infrastructure Australia what material it consulted before coming to its recommendation (for example, reports or other reference material), as well as which organisations and individuals it consulted.
In response, IA provided a statement which did not directly answer the question. You can download its full response here in Word format.
Instead, the agency only provided a general statement noting that the recommendation to privatise the NBN should be read “together with other similar recommendations” in its 15-year plan, especially those contained in chapters 5 and 6.
“The Funding and Competitive Markets chapters (5 and 6 respectively) of the Plan provide detail to demonstrate that infrastructure services deliver the best customer outcomes, at the most efficient cost, when they are delivered through a well-structured, well-regulated market,” the authority said.
“Chapter 6 provides detail to demonstrate that more mature market structures ininfrastructure sub-sectors have delivered better customer outcomes. The Plan identifies energy markets and mobile telecommunication markets as more mature structures, with road markets and some sections of the water market as less mature.”
“The full Funding and Competitive Markets chapters, including all sources and empirical evidence, form the basis of the recommended treatment of the NBN and the telecommunications market more broadly. The references are contained in appendix D.”
Appendix D of the report illustrates that Infrastructure Australia consulted almost no documents relating to the NBN before coming to its privatisation recommendation.
The only directly NBN-related documents referenced in the Appendix related to documents already produced by the Government, such as NBN rollout reports, the Statement of Expectations guiding its behaviour, the NBN Corporate Plan, various reports by the Department of Communications and the Arts and agencies such as the ACMA.
The only document contained in the Appendix which appears to examine telecommunications industry structure is a media release from the ACCC on the topic of broadband competition, dated 2014, and the 2014 Vertigan review of the NBN in that same year.
The Vertigan review of the NBN is regarded as a partisan document driven by the Coalition Government’s NBN agenda, due to the presence on its panel of experts of figures such as long-time NBN critic and historic Liberal supporter Henry Ergas.
The list of public submissions to Infrastructure Australia as part of the consultation process around the 15-year plan includes very few submissions related to the NBN or telecommunications in general, with only the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network making a brief submission on the topic.
Almost all of the submissions and reference documents which Infrastructure Australia appears to have consulted as part of the process relate to non-telecommunications types of infrastructure, such as road, rail, water or electricity networks. Very few relate directly to telecommunications markets, which typically evolve much more rapidly than those other forms of infrastructure, or to the NBN situation directly.
Delimiter is also engaged in a Freedom of Information process of attempting to source a list of documents and organisations consulted by Infrastructure Australia in making its NBN privatisation recommendation.
However, although the FOI Act allows the Government to voluntarily create lists of material to meet a request, Infrastructure Australia has refused to do so and has stated that any documents it consulted in making the NBN recommendation would not be covered by the FOI Act. You can read the current status of the FOI request on the Right to Know website.
Infrastructure Australia did note that it has not consulted with either current Communications Minister Mitch Fifield or his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull before making the recommendation.
“Infrastructure Australia did not discuss or communicate this recommendation with any Communications Minister before the content of the Plan was approved by the Board,” the agency said.
“Once IA’s independent Board had finalised the content of the Plan, IA provided a courtesy briefing to Australian Government Ministers on content relevant to their portfolio, as per our Statement of Expectations.”
Infrastructure Australia refused to disclose the identities of any staff who were involved in making the NBN privatisation recommendation. “The Plan is the view of IA’s independent Board,” it said.
Infrastructure Australia’s board contains very little direct telecommunications industry experience, with the only figures with connections to the industry being Kerry Schott, who also sits on the NBN board, and chair Mark Birrell, who was the Victorian Minister for Major Projects, Industry, Science and Technology from 1992 to 1999.
Image credit: NBN company