Albanese incorrectly claims
Bespoke is ‘PR agency’



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.

Image credit: Toby Hudson, Creative Commons


  1. “Albanese is right about Turnbull. He is playing the ball and not the man”
    I think you got this backward, if you are agree with “that’s why he’s playing the person rather than the policy.”

  2. The question should be, why did the board resort to employing Bespoke.. ?
    It seems it wasnt an audit they are worried about, but the threat of a Judicial inquiry.. And rightly so.
    Except from Late line:
    TONY JONES: Now, did you threaten the directors of the NBN board with a judicial inquiry into their decisions if the Coalition wins government?

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: Absolutely not. The Coalition has a broadband policy which was published on the 9th April, more than three months ago, and it says that one of the things we will do is have an audit of the NBN, its governance, among other things, how the project was put together, what sort of advice was given to choose the technology – a thorough audit into what has gone …

    TONY JONES: No judges involved?

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, that is an option of having a judicial inquiry, but it actually not our plan. We haven’t ruled that out categorically,

    So he at first he says
    “absolutely not”. then said he has “not ruled it out categorically..”
    I would be concerned too.

  3. Its a shame Albanese described Bespoke as a PR company, and he did go off on a bit of a tangent with his deflection of the questions. However what he had to say about the NBN, and Turnbull’s unprecedented attacks on NBNCo board members, is absolutely spot on.

    Although Albanese lacks the technical knowledge of his predecessor, he’s already proving himself to be a far better communicator of the strengths of the NBN (albeit perhaps relying on his ‘iron vs copper’ analogy a little too much :)). Hope he swiftly clears up this Bespoke matter, and can sort out the multiple problems with the NBNCo board.

  4. Who are the public’s highest level representatives? Politicians. I’m not saying it’s not deflection, but it’s also not factually incorrect to call lobbying “public relations”.

  5. I know it’s mincing with words, but you could call it a PR company…..Political Relations ;)

    I get the point you’ve made here. I’m a little concerned as to why as soon as Quigley announces his retirement, this happens. McKenna is either highly un-used to dealing with political pressure (something I can’t believe) or truly believes there’s some form of serious judicial threat to NBNCo. in the event of a Coalition government and therefore the possibility of charges being laid for negligence in business practices. Either way, her reaction (and subsequently the action of the board as a whole) has been far too aggressive. Albanese needs to be quickly ensuring this issue is either removed entirely or seriously diffused by explaining in full the reasons for these actions and what conventions surround them.

    Saying that, as others have already said, Turnbull is largely responsible for this. His actions have been despicable and grossly negligent of a shadow minister. He should, in normal circumstances, be hauled before the LOTO and reprimanded and be forced to issue a statement of apology. But seeing as Tony Abbott probably countenanced this in the first place, that isn’t going to happen. Frankly, this is more than enough reason on its’ own for me to put aside any possibility of voting LNP (not that it was likely anyway) this election. This sort of behaviour, rather than being outlying and shunned, has become standard operating practice from Turnbull and many other Opposition ministers now. I am utterly disgusted at their behaviour and contempt for the public they serve and they should feel ashamed.

  6. I don’t know if we’re seeing the full story here.

    McKenna responded to a FoI request as she’s obligated to do, I’m not sure the case has been proven that she’s acted improperly here.

    Turnbull is the one that is claiming that McKenna’s letter talking of threats of judicial inquiry etc are in reference to the audit the Coalition were carrying out. We haven’t heard McKenna’s side of the story to know whether this is true. Who leaked the original letter to the AFR, anyway? The AFR has been no friend of NBNCo recently and it’s not really in McKenna’s interest to have leaked it, so I’m guessing Turnbull.

  7. “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.””

    so, factually, who exactly hired the “PR” firm? the board or the legal company?

    • If the legal company hired the PR company, then that’s the legal firm’s choice? If it wasn’t a directive from the board, then that is really not quite the same as the board itself doing so.

      Is this a case of twisting words again?

  8. Turnbull has been waging a pretty open war with NBNco. He’s already helped secure one scalp. Whilst the exact details aren’t entirely known, it sounds entirely prudent in response.

    There is no real policy battle going on here, Turnbull is purely out for blood. It’s been pretty appalling behaviour. By all means, we should all be expecting NBNco be kept honest, but there is a point where it ceases to be oversight and becomes a personal vendetta.

    The latter is increasingly obvious to be the case.

  9. Does adding yourself to the Federal Government’s register of lobbyists mean that you can only lobby?

    From their website

    ” Bespoke Approach will not directly lobby in the corridors of Parliament.

    While the principals do work on political issues and the company is listed – as a matter of procedure – on the Australian Government’s registry of lobbyists, Bespoke Approach maintains an arm’s-length position as a matter of principle.”

  10. ‘Turnbull has sternly criticised McKenna…’

    That sounds paternalistic enough to be the Earl of Wentworth.

    And if somebody was threatening him with a judicial enquiry, with the apparent insinuation that a judicial enquiry was needed, ie because of some possible illegality, then no doubt Mr Turnbull would have a legal team around him before you could say habeas corpus.

  11. If you have decent read of the Bespoke web site, it’s pretty obvious it’s not just a PR company. But then, it’s also obviously not just a lobbyist either…

    They also offer “political and regulatory counsel” and “strategic corporate communications advice”, which would be the two main reasons they were being retained by the legal firm (as McKenna said in her letter to Malcolm).

    And Malcolm decided to go into “Turdball” mode (a nickname his Goldman Sachs colleges gave him when he was being “high-handed”, according to Crikey) and paint the situation in as nasty a way as he could.

  12. @ Renai:
    “Albanese is factually incorrect. Bespoke Approach is not a “public relations company”.”

    To call his comment “factually incorrect” would mean there is no fact at all in his comment – so lets look at it again ;)

    Albanese refered to Bespoke Approach in a passing comment as “public relations company”

    To say that comment is “factually incorrect” is in itself technically factually incorrect – because:

    1. According to the – Public relations means:
    “The profession or practice of creating and maintaining goodwill of an organization’s various publics (customers, employees, investors, suppliers, etc.)”

    2. According to the Encyclopedia of public relations 2. (SAGE. ISBN 978-0-7619-2733-4)
    “In public relations and communication theory, a public is distinct from a stakeholder or a market. A public is a subset of the set of stakeholders for an organization, that comprises those people concerned with a specific issue.”

    3. Bespoke Approach “offers tailored solutions to leading Australian and international businesses on political, regulatory and strategic communications matters across a range of industries” and “The principals’ appreciation of sensitive and complex issues enables Bespoke Approach to provide strategic advice, factoring in regional government policies and attitudes, cross-border sensitivities and prevailing public opinion.” – which would assist with points 1 and 2

    Sure he could have described Bespoke Approach as per their own descriptions, which would have required more than a single line comment about Bespoke Approach, but what he did say, calling them a “Public Relations company”, is not “factually incorrect” based on the understanding that “public” in “public relations” does not always refer to “the general public” and in business it can actually refer to parties such as a subset of the stakeholders that comprises those people concerned with a specific issue, customers, and even investors.

    If NBNCo’s board are/where using a company (ie. Bespoke Approach) in regards to any definition of “public relations” (ie. for strategic corporate communications advice and/or political counsel in relation to NBNCo’s own “public”), then technically Albanese’s comment was factually correct.

    For someone who is usually the one for technicalities when it comes to making sure something is actually “factually incorrect” – I am surprised you made such a statement in your “opinion/analysis” in this article.

    To use your own previous rules for calling something a lie – Albanese would need to be “aware” he is saying something that is not fact, and it would actually need to be “factually incorrect” – neither or which Albanese’s comment meets.

    I seriously doubt that you would have called this comment “factually incorrect” if it had of been made by Malcolm Turnbull – I’m confident the word you would most likely have used would have been “misleading” – but never “factually incorrect” ;)


    • I like all of your comment [and to a certain degree agree with you], but seriously, if you don’t think Renai would call MT a liar when he lies, then you haven’t been reading the same Delimiter I have.

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