Election rant 2: NBN Co’s outrageous Labor favour


ZDNet.com.au columnist David Braue has committed to write one technology-related election rant for each business day until the Federal Election on August 21. But elections are above all, a debate between two sides. So Delimiter is going to match his seven rants — day by day – providing an alternative devil’s advocate point of view.

opinion If you attended Mike Quigley’s landmark speech yesterday at Sydney’s ritzy Westin Hotel, you would have walked away with the feeling that butter wouldn’t melt in the NBN Co chief executive’s mouth.

The night before, Quigley (pictured) had personally called Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and delivered him a fantastic and unbelievable windfall — NBN Co’s realisation that the upcoming National Broadband Network could support ten times the speeds that it had originally been planned for. Not only would the NBN be able to deliver 93 percent of Australians broadband at 1Gbps — instead of the 100Mbps initially planned, Quigley told Conroy, but it literally wouldn’t cost a cent more!


Now if Quigley had chosen any other time to release this news, it would rightly be universally hailed as a fantastic announcement that would further demonstrate the strength of the business and technical case for building the multi-billion dollar NBN.

But this week isn’t just like any other week in the history of Australia’s telecommunications industry.

Quigley chose to release his news to Conroy just nine days before Australia is due to head to the polls in the upcoming Federal Election, in which broadband is looming as a major policy differentiator between Labor and the Coalition.

Quigley chose to release his news to Conroy just days after the Coalition published its fiscally responsible but technically questionable rival broadband policy.

And Quigley chose to release his news to Conroy just hours before Conroy was scheduled to hold a major campaign event in Tasmania with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to formally launch the Tasmanian leg of the NBN.

It would be unbelievably naive to suggest that Quigley was ignorant of the potential political effect that his massive free kick to Labor would have during the closely contested political campaign, in which the difference between the two major parties’ broadband policies could not be more stark.

Quigley’s announcement gives Conroy and Gillard the ammunition to claim that the NBN will deliver speeds almost a hundred times faster than those of the Coalition’s policy — which will guarantee just 12Mbps. What, the NBN Co chief couldn’t swear his staff to secrecy about the decision, and wait to announce it on August 22?

Quigley’s disclosure was even more remarkable when you consider that it was likely a flagrant and blatant breach of the Government’s own Caretaker Conventions, which are intended to ensure that no major initiatives or decisions are undertaken by the Government or associated entities after an election is called, because of the potential of a change in Government and associated policy.

I quote from the Government’s Caretaker Conventions guidelines (PDF):

Governments avoid making major policy decisions during the caretaker period that are likely to commit an incoming government. Whether a particular policy decision qualifies as ‘major’ is a matter for judgment. Relevant considerations include not only the significance of the decision in terms of policy and resources, but also whether the decision is a matter of contention between the Government and Opposition in the election campaign.

The document also states that Government Business Enterprises like NBN Co (which is wholly owned by the Government) should observe the Caretaker Conventions, unless to do so would conflict with their legal obligations or compelling organisational requirements.

Now clearly the matter of whether the NBN will support 100Mbps or 1Gbps speeds is a weighty policy matter which the Communications Minister of the day must have a view on and be involved in deciding on.

It is not a simple technical matter as Quigley made it out to be yesterday — the entrance of consumer 1Gbps services into Australia’s telecommunications market will have wide-ranging implications for the entire sector. And the upgrade represents a significant departure from Conroy’s public statement that the NBN would support speeds of up to 100Mbps. Admittedly, it’s a positive departure. But the upgrade does change government policy.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no doubt that NBN Co’s decision relates to “a matter of contention” between Labor and the Coalition.

Not only did Quigley likely break the Caretaker Conventions, however — as ARN has noted, he went further, and implicitly criticised the Coalition’s wireless- and HFC-based broadband policy itself. In his speech yesterday, Quigley did everything but directly say that the Coalition’s policy was an atrocious waste of time and should be laughed off as a bad joke (which of course, sections of it are).

Now the question has to be asked: Why did the normally apolitical Quigley break so dramatically with his tradition of keeping his head down and thrust NBN Co deeply into the political arena this week in the midst of a Federal Election focused on broadband?

David Braue has adroitly given us the reason in the second of his ‘seven deadly sins’ rants on election technology policy, posted this afternoon at ZDNet.com.au.

It was revenge.

Not only has the Coalition promised to disband Quigley’s precious NBN Co if it wins the election, it has done so in the most odious and offensive of ways, by stating baldly that Quigley’s highly intelligent and capable bunch of engineers and network gurus are “talentless” and a “stodgy government bureaucracy”.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. As David noted in his article, Quigley himself is highly capable, and he has soaked up the best of the best to build NBN Co and ensured that it is literally the brains trust of Australia’s telecommunications sector.

But there are very visible signs that Coalition finance spokesperson Andrew Robb’s insults hit home at NBN Co in a very personal way.

There is no doubt that right now, some NBN Co staff — maybe even Quigley himself — are seething with rage as they contemplate being laid off after August 21 and being forced to abandon their dream of building a glorious fibre future for Australia after just one year on the job — or even less, in some cases. And it must hurt particularly badly that it’s a party led by a veritable Luddite that could deliver them to this fate.

However, there is one essential difference between Andrew Robb’s “cheap shot” at the NBN Co and Quigley’s amazingly partisan free bandwidth gift to Labor.

As a politician campaigning in a Federal Election, Robb was fully entitled to make those comments in public — and as a fiscal conservative, it is his duty to contemplate disbanding the big-spending National Broadband Network project in a time of national debt.

But as a quasi-public servant whose Government Business Enterprise is a matter of highly contentious political debate during a closely fought Federal Election, Quigley is not entitled to either make major policy decisions or make political comments in public at this time. The fact that he did so is outrageous, and Quigley should rightly be worried about his future if the Coalition wins Government — irrespective of if NBN Co was actually disbanded.

Quigley and his NBN Co team need to face a bitter truth: They are literally employees of the Federal Government — like workers at Australia Post, the Australian Government Solicitor and the Australian Rail Track Corporation. It is simply reality that a change in Government will bring a change in the direction of these corporations, and Australian public servants live daily with that problem during every election.

As David pointed out, NBN Co’s ranks are filled with the cream of Australia’s telecommunications sector. But as talented as Quigley and his team are, they are no longer private sector workers. They are part of the Government.

And during an election, public servants had better keep their head down — unless they want it to be chopped off.

Image credit: Delimiter


  1. 1 – It’s 1Gbps per second for 93%, not 97%…
    2 – The fact that the cost is “practically” no different from 100Mbps demonstrates how the network can grow in capacity in future – something that the Opposition “plan” cannot do…

    • The move from 100Mbps to 1Gbps is just a change from FE to GE ports on the NTU (which they were always capable of anyway).
      My home modem/router has GE ports on the LAN side as well, this doesn’t mean that my ADSL2 connection is also capable of GE speeds!
      This is a political announcement, pure and simple. I’d really hoped NBNCo would be above this sort of thing, but obviously I was wrong (again!)…

  2. I’m not sure an announcement that an end user speed increased (on infrastructure that was always capable of gigabit speeds no less) constitues a “major policy decision”.

    NBNco is charged with delivering a return and to plan for future growth. The above slots right into that.

    And it’s not “free” Renai. It’s no more free than me being able to selling you a car that was always capable of 200kph, once speed limited to 160, limit removed.

    Quigley isn’t doing Labor a favour. He’s doing his job.

    The product was always going to have a cost. It was always going to be capable of more. Those are two core features of a plan that has to turn a buck. It does that by attracting consumers.

    You have some valid points, but some of it is straw grasping.

    • I agree with some of this, but there is no doubt that Quigley had a choice about when he could announce this, and he chose the time (for whatever reason) that would most influence the election campaign and provide a political asset to Labor.

  3. This can’t realistically be construed as a major policy decision, and the suggestion that it breaches caretaker conventions seems way over the top.

    Further, I can’t for life of me see how it can be considered “outrageous” that someone whose entire organisation and own job has just been given the threat of immediate dissolution should choose that time to provide loudly and publicly all the factual justification they can for its survival. Surely its the other way around. It would have seemed almost outrageous to me If he *hadn’t* done so.

    • “It would have seemed almost outrageous to me If he *hadn’t* done so.”


      Might have even been whipping his guys to make sure they had adequate backing to make that statement *right* now.

    • hi Graham,

      it’s inappropriate because Quigley’s role does not allow him to pick political sides — even if one side would extinguish that role. He is responsible to the Government of the day, and to take action to attempt to influence the Federal Election — even if he is just providing clarifying information, for example — is inappropriate.

      Quigley does not have the luxury of being an independent organisation or a political player. He is part of the non-political branch of Government — and must remain neutral while the politicking is going on during the election.

      It’s clearly an issue — he was peppered with questions from other journalists (not just myself) about this when he gave the speech.

      • I simply don’t see that what he did constituted taking sides UNLESS he had been deliberately withholding facts from the public until that time, for the sake of politicization. It doesn’t hurt to investigate that possibility, but unless you find some concrete evidence of that, it’s a highly speculative accusation. Makes for a good story though, I suppose. ;-)

  4. I agree with Renai on this, the earliest the speed increases should have been announced is once the government leaves caretaker mode following the count.

    If the speed increase had been announced prior to the opposition releasing their broadband policy, I might have cut Quigley some, but very little, slack. By the time the speed increase was announce, there was no doubt the NBN and NBNco had become a key component of the election campaign.

    It is because Quiqley’s “entire organisation and own job has just been given the threat of immediate dissolution” that he should have acted in a professional manner and taken caretaker conventions into account.

    Part of the problem is that caretaker conventions are just that, conventions, so it is not illegal to break them, only immoral. A couple of state jurisdictions have implemented them in law, the other states and the commonwealth should join them.

  5. The Speed increase has been a capability in house for some time. It has just been rolled out in other countries and proven , till that time it was still a possibility and not a “real deal”. This testing/ proving has only happened in the last week. While this should have been announced to world +dog (and it is in other circles), Ministers need to be pointed to the facts some times, this being the case.
    True that both the minister and shadow minister should have the same info or ” pointing” that they didn’t is more the issue here.
    If you expect the country to stop just because its gov is in pause mode is wrong, otherwise the PS would look forward to more elections when they could take holidays at our expense. No Defence or all those other things that are federally run.

  6. The statement by Quigley was a blatant breach of the Public Service Act. Not only should Quigley lose his job, but the result of the election could be called into question.

    Protecting your job is NOT sufficient reason to breach the law.

    The Labor Party has demonstrated a lack of regard for Australians, our pockets and our constitution in a number of ways already. For example its attitude towards the leaks of Liberal Party policy costings – either via the Treasurer’s office or the Treasury; its decision to hold off a campaign launch to allow the government to use taxpayer funds to campaign for four weeks; and its decision to grant an exception from its own advertising laws for mining tax advertising.

    The Labor party is also the censorship party – seeking to limit Australians’ freedom of speech – and don’t forget that the Party has no compunctions replacing our Prime Minister without an election, reflecting the behaviour of their NSW kin.

    Given this environment, I don’t expect the Labor party will ever investigate or act in the matter of Quigley and will continue to break its own laws, cheat, lie and otherwise act in its own interests to the expense of the Australian people.

  7. So with your argument, if Labor were intending to install an internet filter and CSIRO has determined that it would not do what it was supposed to do, it should keep silent?

    • The filter is a matter of contention between the major parties so the CSIRO would need to remain quite.

      Unlike companies floated on the stock market, Government owned companies do not have a duty to release such information in a timely manner, their duty is to the government of the day.

      Presently, convention dictates, Australia does not have a government so the CSIRO, NBN Co and others must wait until we do.

      • That’s scary. These last few weeks are when policies can be created without adequate consideration. A political party would look foolish when they flip flop on a promise or be a fool if they go ahead with a mistake. A trusted government agency should be able to provide relevant advice especially if future policies are involved. At least it’s easier for a party to flip flop on a faulty promise before they are elected based on delivering it.

        Hypothetically, if the NBN were able to halve their expected cost of $43 billion, should they wait until after the election to announce it?

  8. Very well argued, Renai, except for one thing: Quigley revealed months ago that the network was capable of 1Gbps speeds (cf http://bit.ly/a090bn which has a dateline of 12 March).

    I can’t speak for why Conroy was apparently not aware of this — perhaps he’s not reading the right tech media sites :-) — but as we have seen since the announcement, there were plenty of other people who were aware of it. So the real question is not, does it constitute a new policy announcement but why more people hadn’t noticed it before. Oh, and why Tony Abbott thinks somebody is pulling his leg.

    I hope you’ve rested your debating muscles over the weekend — #3 will land tomorrow and I think we all look forward to your most-certainly well-argued rebuttal! :-)

  9. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a purely technical issue clearly doesn’t understand the underlying technology. THIS is why NBN is rolling out an optical fibre network. 100 Mbit fibre is old technology now, which is why gigabit equipment has dropped in price to match it. TEN gigabit is regularly done over fibre now, although the equipment is still expensive. 100 gigabit fibre is in development right now. and it all uses the SAME glass fibre cable. NBN is the right technology for the future.

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