opinion On Tuesday last week, stoic NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley appeared yet again before a group of Coalition politicians representing some of his harshest critics.
Considered former Optus exec Paul Fletcher was there, as was razor-tongued South Australian Senator Mary Jo Fisher. Shadow regional communications spokesperson Luke Hartsuyker took his chair, as did blustering veteran Ian Macdonald. And, of course, no Joint Committee hearing into the National Broadband Network would be complete with the dynamic presence of Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
In short, the Coalition’s telecommunications expertise was out in force — in a venue in which they would usually be out for blood.
However, curiously, the session never grew that heated.
The last several times Quigley had appeared before in such a venue — in the NBN and Senate Estimates committee meetings held throughout May and June — the Coalition had let loose its attack dogs in full swing. Like a pack of oversized dire-wolves, Turnbull and his colleagues had bared their fangs and lunged for Quigley’s jugular while simultaneously trying to slice his hamstrings, in vicious attacks on the executive’s personal credibility which have variously been labelled “a smear campaign”, “McCarthyism”, “a witch hunt”, “Godwin Grech re-visited” and worse.
I speak, of course, of the Coalition’s relentless pursuit of Quigley over his previous employment at French networking giant Alcatel-Lucent, and the tenuous links which some are drawing between the executive’s time there and allegations of corruption and bribery in Alcatel’s division covering Central American country Costa Rica.
Now, I’ve sat through hundreds of parliamentary sessions in my time as a journalist; I’ve attended dozens of Ministerial and Opposition press conferences; I’ve seen the worst that Australian politicians can do in public discourse. But the Coalition’s hounding of Quigley over the Alcatel-Lucent matter achieved a new low, in my opinion. Turnbull and his brigade have believed they were so close on the scent of Quigley’s downfall that they failed to see what a disgrace they had become during the chase.
And yet in this most recent of sessions, last week, it was as though these ferocious beasts of democracy had turned into a bunch of mewling kittens.
If you search through the session transcript (PDF), you will find no mention of Alcatel-Lucent. Shockingly, the Coalition allowed Quigley a lengthy opening statement on other issues, before proceeding to ask him a series of polite and insightful questions about the actual matter at hand: The practicalities of how the National Broadband Network is being rolled out.
A mild-manned Luke Hartsuyker questioned the NBN Co chief about its new construction contracts and the price of labour, followed by some more pressing queries about the difference between NBN Co’s respective deals with Telstra and Optus. Mary Jo Fisher swapped her caustic tongue for a gentle smile and followed up Hartsuyker’s interest with some clarifications about post-tax valuations, as well as discussing NBN Co’s union agreements. Fletcher went a bit further than his colleagues, and put Quigley in the hot seat for a while over the Optus deal — but it is evident that Quigley was able to get his answers out in a reasonable manner without being boiled alive as he had been during previous sessions.
Out of the entire Opposition cohort, it was only Turnbull himself that pushed Quigley into being slightly uncomfortable — but again the question of Alcatel-Lucent was left off the table. Turnbull mainly appeared to be interested in comparing Korea’s broadband situation with Australia’s own, pinioning Quigley on the matter of end user pricing and what the impact of competition was on the respective markets.
This sudden turnaround by the Opposition on the matter of Quigley’s Alcatel-Lucent past is simply remarkable.
We are talking about half a dozen senior politicians who have been hounding the NBN Co chief executive on this contentious matter for the past six months. As early as December last year, Turnbull was demanding answers from Quigley over the issue, stating that the executive and his offsider, NBN Co CFO Jean-Pascal Beaufret, had a responsibility to give Australians “a detailed explanation”.
At every opportunity since that time, Turnbull and his colleagues have stuck the boot into Quigley on the matter, with several parliamentary sessions over the past several months erupting in furore after Quigley had endured several hours of close questioning.
There have been countless newspaper articles on the matter written over the past six months, hundreds of TV reports displaying the Coalition’s bombastic rhetoric to full effect, dozens of radio interviews in which Turnbull has reiterated his view of Quigley’s involvement in the Costa Rica scandal, and no doubt, thousands of phone calls to NBN Co’s besieged press team, which has likely had to issue the same statement on the matter denying any guilt on Quigley’s part daily for months on end.
To think that the Coalition would simply abandon this high-profile line of questioning for — shock! — valid questions about NBN Co’s current operations is a move which I think few would have expected. The ongoing nature of the personal attack on Quigley has been so strong that many of us had come to take it for granted; whenever the Coalition faced the NBN Co chief, the long knives would come out.
That the personal attacks on Quigley have died down over the past week signifies one thing: For now, the Coalition appears to have called a halt to them. For the Alcatel-Lucent issue not to have been mentioned at all during this most recent session indicates that the Coalition in general, and Turnbull in particular as the NBN policy leader, has recognised that there is not enough ammunition for now to fire at Quigley on this particular issue. The message has gone out: Cut Quigley some slack — for now.
Will the issue come up again? It depends. There will need to be additional information brought forward in the ongoing international legal proceedings regarding the matter. If Quigley’s name is linked again to the debacle in Costa Rica, if fresh claims are leveled against Alcatel-Lucent’s corporate culture, or — however unlikely — if he is questioned by any law enforcement authorities — then the Coalition will light a fire under the NBN Co chief again, with relish.
In the meantime, let us remember one thing.
The Coalition has spent the past six months levelling a series of personal attacks on Quigley that have linked the executive’s name in public with charges of corruption and bribery.
They have done so both under the cover of parliamentary privilege, but also in public, through as many mass media channels as they could leverage. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repetitively brought the issue up, using every avenue in his power to have Quigley’s personal credibility debated ad infinitum.
And this has been done, despite the fact that no evidence has been presented about any misconduct on Quigley’s part whatsoever; but solely on the basis that he was part of the leadership team in a massive company in which untenable behaviour took place in a tiny, third-world country thousands of kilometres from where he lived.
Quigley’s patience on this matter, and with the politics of the NBN, has been inexhaustible. If the allegations had been made by private citizens and not members of parliament, there is absolutely no doubt that the executive would have sued for defamation by now. It is clear that his reputation has been besmirched, and there are mechanisms under the law to defend oneself in these sort of circumstances.
In the face of Quigley’s stoicism, the Coalition temporarily backed down. However, the fact remains that it has not apologised for its approach to the matter — and likely never will.
This is the arrogance of political life. It is almost always purely tactical — you say whatever you think you can get away with, and do whatever is necessary to get ahead. But sometimes, as in this case, simply walking away from an issue is not enough. If the Coalition would take Government, and implement its own telecommunications policy, it must demonstrate a little more humility.
Ultimately, for a Coalition Government to take Australia’s telecommunications industry forward with vim and vigour, it will need the staff of NBN Co on side. By the time the next election arrives, several millions of Australians will have the NBN connected, and the program must go ahead in one way or another.
No doubt Quigley would resign if the Coalition took Government — and who could blame him? But the hundreds of other NBN Co staff, not to mention the bureaucrats in the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy, will be looking to a new Communications Minister for guidance. If Malcolm Turnbull or anyone else in the Coalition wants to be effective in setting telecommunications policy in future, they had better start to demonstrate a little more respect for those who will be implementing it.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull