news Communications Minister Anthony Albanese this morning claimed a firm hired by a law firm acting for NBN Co’s board of directors was a “public relations company”, despite the fact that the firm concerned, Bespoke Approach, is listed on the Federal Government’s register of lobbyists and employs former senior politicians for the purposes of providing political management services.
NBN Co chair Siobhan McKenna has confirmed, in letters published by Shadow Communications Minister yesterday morning, that NBN Co’s board had hired law firm Herbert Smith Freehills as independent legal counsel, to help protect the board from what McKenna said was the Coalition’s threat that it may hold a judicial enquiry into the performance of NBN Co under its currently management, should the Coalition take power in the upcoming Federal Election.
Subsequently, questions have been raised about whether the action breaches convention and perhaps regulation with respect to the operation of government business enterprises such as NBN Co (D2 link). Turnbull has sternly criticised McKenna and the executive’s NBN Co colleagues for the action, questioning whether NBN Co funding should be used for the purposed of protecting the board’s positions in a Coalition Government.
Turnbull said Bespoke was actively seeking meetings on behalf of McKenna with Coalition MPs, “in the manner of a lobbyist”, with the lobbying firm’s brief being “to make sure the chair’s role is understood, the board is regarded as able and that it is reflected that she and the board would serve any government of the day if required.”
The Liberal MP questioned whether McKenna was seeking to use the lobbyist firm to influence the composition or terms of reference of any inquiry which a Coalition Government might call into BN Co, or even to convince the Coalition that no forensic audit was required of NBN Co’s governance practices.
However, speaking to the media today in Sydney at a joint event with the Australian Industry Group (according to a transcript of the event provided by his office), Deputy Prime Minister and Communications Minister Anthony Albanese attempted to brush off any claims of impropriety. “The NBN Co board makes its own decisions, it’s an independent board,” said Albanese in response to a question on the issue.
“What I am concerned about is Malcolm Turnbull’s ongoing attacks, which are pretty unprecedented, on board members of NBN Co. And I say to Malcolm that it is time to stop playing politics with this and to stop the personal attacks against, whether it be the chair, or the NBN Co board members. This is unprecedented in terms of attacks on a government business enterprise board. I am the shareholder minister of a number of organisations, including the Australian Rail Track Corporation, and others. I have never seen before any shadow minister from any side of politics play such a political role targeting particular board members.”
Asked whether he had spoken to McKenna about the issue Albanese said he kept discussions with the NBN Co “on a professional level”. “I will continue to do that. That is appropriate,” the Minister said.
However, journalists at the press conference did not give up on the issue, forcing Albanese to speak further on the actions taken by McKenna and the board. One journalist asked: “Deputy Prime Minister, do you believe a government business enterprise like NBN Co should be able to contract a lobbying firm?” “You have asked me the question, you have already got an answer,” fired back Albanese. “If you want to keep asking it, you will get the same answer. I refer you to my previous answer.”
“But experts say that it could be a breach of [protocol] in both the private sector and in the public sector. Do you believe that it is?” the journalist persisted. “Do I believe that a company employing a public relations company is in breach of company guidelines? Good luck with that,” said Albanese. “Has AIG ever employed a PR company? Get serious.”
It was then pointed out to the Communications Minister that Bespoke Approach is not a public relations company. Bespoke is listed on the Federal Parliament’s register of lobbyists, and is led by former politicians, not public relations staff. It lists its specialities as being “political, regulatory and strategic communications matters across a range of industries”.
Bespoke’s details are fully available online. The company boasts some high-level operators; it boasts former Foreign Minister and Leader of the Opposition Alexander Downer, ex-Hawke and Keating Minister Nick Bolkus and former senior Liberal party staff Ian Smith on its staff roster, as well as former Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson.
The company’s site states: “Australia’s new political landscape presents a number of difficult yet exciting challenges for national and international businesses. How a business chooses to navigate its way through the unique environment presented by a minority government is made easier and achieved more confidently when guided by the adroit principals at Bespoke Approach.”
Furthermore, McKenna’s letter to Turnbull appears to clearly state that the firm has been hired to help NBN Co deal with the political arena. “It is not unusual for company directors faced with threats to exercise their right to appoint external advisers,” McKenna wrote. “Indeed in the circumstances it would be most unusual for the directors not to seek to do so. Given the governmental nature of the matter, Herbert Smith Freehills have engaged Bespoke Approach.”
Albanese replied: “They are a PR company. They are a PR company led by Alexander Downer and Ian Smith. And if Malcolm Turnbull has a great problem with Alexander Downer and Ian Smith, the divisions in the Coalition go back a long way. I don’t think, seriously, in terms of the National Broadband Network, you might think this is the issue; whether a PR company has been employed for a short period of time to do some work.”
“Seriously, that is the sort of approach, whether it be from a journalist or from Malcolm Turnbull, that Australians are turning off. Australians want vision from their national government.”
“They know that the National Broadband Network, that will transform the way that manufacturing works, will transform the delivery of education and health services, will secure employment, will enable us to compete with our neighbours – that is about uploads as well as downloads in terms of files and being able to compete with our neighbours. They know that the National Broadband Network, in delivering fibre to the home – as opposed to the absurdity of fibre to the fridge on the corner, and then copper to the home – they know what the difference is.
“They know also that the NBN will deliver the same service at the same price, whether you live in regional Australia or whether you live in the CBD or inner suburbs such as here at Rosebery. They are the issues that people are concerned about and frankly, the ongoing nit-picking, negativity of the Opposition, and some of the media focus, is precisely the sort of negative political frame that people are reacting against. The Government will continue to push a positive agenda and to put things properly in perspective.”
Albanese further added:
“It’s a distraction from what people are concerned about. And it’s a deliberate distraction because Malcolm Turnbull has a fraudband policy and a policy that relies on copper and the technology of the 19th century.”
“Now we had this debate in Australia in 1910 in the parliament over whether we’d move from iron to copper. And there were a whole lot of people then in 1910, if you look it up in Hansard, saying ‘no, the iron stuff has served us fine, iron wire, for the last 30 years, we can keep it, that will do, it’s fast enough’. Those people back then who embraced copper were embracing the technology of then, the best technology and the technology which served us well in the 20th century.
We are now in the 21st century. It is beyond belief that anyone who is serious about Australia’s economic future can say copper is good enough, don’t worry about fibre.
We need to compete in our region. We live in the fastest growing region of the world. You know what I think? I think Australian manufacturing has a great future. Why? Because gentlemen such as Kevin here and other small businesses are employing people and they’re up with the times. We can produce things that are high value to compete in our region, to open up export markets as well as supply for the domestic market. But we can only do that, we can only do that if we embrace the future, not if we engage in what was a debate for 1910, but is not a debate for 2013.
Malcolm Turnbull knows his policy is a dud, that’s why he’s playing the person rather than the policy.”
My thoughts in detail on this issue are contained in my much wider Delimiter 2.0 article on the topic, but what I will say is this.
Albanese is factually incorrect. Bespoke Approach is not a “public relations company”. It is a high-priced political management and lobbying firm. It was not hired by NBN Co’s board by proxy through its law firm because of its public relations abilities. Frankly, Bespoke will not be dealing with the public in its role with NBN Co; nor will it be dealing with the media, which is typically a PR agency’s main job. It will be dealing with politicians, because that is what it does — make connections between parties who need to represent themselves to politicians, and the politicians themselves. The NBN Co board’s law firm hired it to help deal with the Coalition’s antagonistic attitude towards NBN Co’s board, and that is precisely what Bespoke has been doing.
Albanese is right about Turnbull. He is playing the man and not the ball. And Turnbull does share a great deal of the blame for creating this poisonous situation. Albanese is also right that the Australian public would rather that everyone concerned pipe down and focus on the bigger issues here in what is, after all, Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project.
But For Albanese to duck questions on this issue and inaccurately play down Bespoke’s role in this situation is to avoid taking responsibility for the actions of NBN Co’s board, which clearly breach the conventions associated with a government business enterprise, is a huge cop-out and an abrogation of his responsibilities as a shareholder minister. Did Turnbull also breach conventions? Sure. As Albanese mentions, he should not be attacking NBN Co’s board directly.
But neither should NBN Co’s board have responded as it did. The board’s actions, in hiring a political lobby firm to deal with the Coalition, represent a clear breach of convention, and, Turnbull has hinted, potentially drift close to the edges of what is permitted under corporate law. Albanese needs to urgently rein in NBN Co’s board and defuse this situation immediately. Misrepresenting Bespoke’s role here and trying to blame Malcolm Turnbull for the whole situation is going to serve nobody — least of all the Australian public, which really does not want its tax dollars spent on lobbyist firms. That should be a truth evident to everyone involved.