The plot thickens:
Going deeper into NBN Co’s spat with Turnbull



blog For those who’ve been watching the developing situation between Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the board of NBN Co, particularly its chair, Siobhan McKenna (pictured above), there are two major new pieces of content this morning which you may be interested in. Firstly, my extended opinion/analysis of the situation has been posted on Delimiter 2.0 (paywalled). A sample paragraph from within the paywall:

“It’s very difficult to say, legally, whether the position of NBN Co’s board is tenable or not … However, what is clear is that NBN Co’s board, in retaining a political lobbying firm and communicating directly with the Opposition of the day, has definitely at least breached government conventions in this area.”

Secondly, the ABC’s excellent Lateline program went into the issue substantially. I was invited on to comment but was too busy getting material ready for you folks to read this morning. Plus, I’ve always hated journalists interviewing other journalists ;) The piece itself only went into the issue at a fairly shallow depth, as television tends to do. However, Lateline’s pièce de résistance was an extended interview with Turnbull on the issue, hosted by Tony Jones, who pushed Turnbull quite hard. I have to say this was fascinating watching. Turnbull was very, very careful with his words; I suspect the Liberal MP knows, as I wrote in my Delimiter 2.0 piece, how far over the line both sides have gone here. It will be interesting to see if they back off in coming weeks.

Image credit: NBN Co


  1. I disagree with you on that they won’t back off simply because of the other issues that Coalition Party have been trying to “spat” up, like the Asylum Seeker policy (now I won’t go there as it is off topic).

    Unfortunately, I don’t see the Coalition Party changing in near future (even if Rudd regains Leadership pre or post election).

      • I used to think if they got the Mad Monk out of there and assuming Turnbull was made OL again, would he say we are changing our stance on the NBN and being a believer in Climate change (OT wont go there) change his stance there too.

        But after pondering it for a long time i think he has learnt too many bad habits from Abbott and would just continue to oppose just for the sake of opposing.

        I dunno just my opinion.

        • The LNP leader does not get to choose policy based on personal perceptions. They have to have the support of the party in enough numbers to get policy changed. The party, at present, support the Mad Monk so that is the policy you see pushed by the party.

          The only reason policy has changed in the ALP is because at the caucus meeting where Rudd was elected leader, he would have said “we need to change this, this and this, and if you vote for me tonight, you are voting for these changes (and possibly your ‘jobs’ come the election)”

        • Turnbull learnt his lesson from from what happened to him over the ETS.

          Climate change and infrastructure build are non-core promises you make at election time.
          After the election, you must not under any circumstances attempt to keep the non-core promises you made or you will be dumped as leader.

  2. I love the way Turnbull claims to have not targeted individual members of the NBN board. What was all that crap trying to pin unrelated Alcatel allegations on him during Senate Estimates then?

    • He was pretty careful with his wording, said “non executive members”.

      Also for anyone who has watched House of Cards its pretty obvious he is keen to get Ziggy on board

      “You might well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”

  3. Dubbed by The Australian as “arguably the Australian media’s most powerful under-the-radar female executive”

    And she’s Lachlan Murdoch’s second-in-command.

    Going to be interesting to see if Malcolm’s bitten off more than he can chew with this one…

  4. Turnbull lacks judgement. He acts belligerently when he can’t afford to do so, and when he is in the wrong to do so.

    His form with the NBN and his attacks on Quigley are reminiscent of Utegate. Turnbull likes to get dirty and viscious, but his appetite for warrentless offensiveness leaves him vulnerable.

    But it is his piggish nature, he can’t seem to help himself.

  5. I really hope SM sues Turbull and or the Liberal Party, they’ve been waging a viscous campaign against the NBN, MQ and now SM and the NBN board!

    I think it’s high time they gotten bitten on the arse by some bad Karma!

    • You must be kidding. Boards are meant to represent the interests of their shareholders, not themselves. To use corporate funds to advance their own interests, if that’s what has happened, is extraordinary.

      Malcolm is right on the money with this one, both in requiring some accountability and in drawing attention to the lack of discipline expertise on the board. This is an enormous ongoing problem in Australia.

      It would be lovely if some litigation did get underway because discovery would put relevant board discussions into the public sphere. For that precise reason, it is almost certain that no-one on the board will be keen on litigation of any sort.

      • I’d have to say, that one is a fine line. Yes, it is the people being attacked by Turnbull. Why is Turnbull attacking the people? To take down NBNCo. You could have anyone in the company and if they didn’t jump to Turnbull’s bark he would be attacking them.

      • There are plenty of executive that have sued people, the important point is they paid for it themselves. We still need to find out if the board of NBNCo are acting independently of the company, or if it’s an NBNCo funded thing.

  6. Turnbull is fully entitled to criticise and/or question the performance of the NBNCo and it’s board. We all are. The NBNCo and/or its board are fully entitled to respond publicly which, afaik, they have done. What’s the issue here?

    Who initiated the first direct written contact between McKenna and Turnbull? Whichever it was is at fault imo. I don’t see the need for any written communication between these two. Better it all goes via Albanese imo.

    Turnbull is quite right to say an audit of the NBNCo has been part of their policy for months. I think that’s a reasonable thing for them to do if they win the election. The important thing imo is that media operators like you, Renai, make sure it’s transparent and accurate rather than a witch hunt.

    I think it’s entirely inappropriate for the board to hire a lobbying firm to promote themselves to anyone. It is doubly inappropriate for this lobbying to be directed at the opposition. What on earth do they think they’re doing?

    • The board is entitled to defend themselves, we’re looking at professional careers here.

      It remains to be seen if the board used their own funds for it (fine by me) or NBN funds (which would not be OK).

      • If it turns out that the board are being attacked and vilified because they have been doing their job (even if that has not suited certain political script lines), then the board members should be fully entitled to obtain NBN Co backing for any appropriate legal advice and action.

        In fact, in those circumstances, they would be remiss if they did not do so.

        • It is the responsibility of NBNco to fund the legal costs of any actions taken against their board members arising from the performance of their job as it would be for any other employee.

          Should they be found to have breached the law, NBNco may seek to recover such costs, but that is for a future date, after a court determination.

        • @Goresh and @socrates

          You guys may be right, I found a lot of instances where boards, and board members, have sued for things like defamation.

          I also found this an interesting read (though it’s from a third party, journalist, perspective):

          It seems that NBNCo it’s self being involved would require it to be a non-profit, otherwise the directors would have to sue on their own.

          However, under the Uniform Defamation Law, corporations with 10 or more employees cannot sue. However, be warned that individuals or groups of individuals employed by or associated with that corporation – such as company directors, CEOs or managers – can still sue if they are identified by the publication.

          Not-for-profit organisations can still sue for defamation, no matter how many employees or members they have.

          The sections on “Political Debate” and “Malice” are particularly interesting.

      • Goldman provided lawyers and paid Turnbull’s out of court settlement over the HiH afair. I am sure NBNCo will not do any payouts for anyones dodgey behaviour like they did for his, but I think having to fund any legal attack yourself because of your position isn’t on. Is Turnbull going to pay for the governments legal costs? After all he is the one that was calling a possible judicial enquiry.

    • “Who initiated the first direct written contact between McKenna and Turnbull?”
      So, indirect contact is OK. She would be fine to comment in news paper articles and on radio about Malcolm Turnbull’s aggression, but not talk to the man himself?

  7. A convention is something that is in accordance with an established pattern or agreement.

    It was convention that when a Senate vacancy appeared, that the Premier of the state concerned would appoint a replacement from the same party as the elected holder.
    The writers of the constitution just assumed that the people in such positions would act in good faith.
    This did not stop two coalition Premiers from replacing Labor Senators with non-Labor Senators in order to block supply and bring down the Whitlam government. Interestingly, they quickly had the constitution changed to formalize the convention to prevent any future Labor Premiers from doing the same to them.

    Likewise, it has always been convention that there not be direct interaction (other than during a formal election period) between the opposition and public servants. It has also been convention that public servants were left to do their jobs safe from attack by parliamentarians because legislation would make it very difficult for public servants to speak out in order to protect themselves, they are a very soft target.

    Sadly, this convention also relies on people acting in good faith. Having first broken the convention by attacking public servants, it is hypocritical in the extreme for the coalition to complain about public servants breaking convention to protect themselves from the coalitions break of convention.

    • The problem with “people acting in good faith” is they view their own interests as being the best thing in the “public interest” . This is a bi-partisan problem of course, both sides think they are acting in the best “public interest”.

    • The public interest is and has always been a vague concept as it will mean different things to different people. As tinman said, both sides will likely claim they are acting in the public interest.

      One of the problems is, as Renai has noted above, that the board has not been defended by ALP politicians. The board should be a-political in the westminister system, that is their best defence from an incoming government, not lobbysists, nor PR-agencies. But it does require the current minister to stand up and answer the attacks personally instead of leaving it to a public servant.

  8. Given the governmental nature of the matter, Herbert Smith Freehills have engaged Bespoke Approach.

    This whole thing hinges on what reason Bespoke was “engaged” for.

    If they were engaged to provide advice on the “governmental nature” side of things, then I think the boards actions are OK.

    If they were engaged to lobby the coalition, then I think the boards actions are ridiculous, and a wast of funds.

    There are two claims that Malcolm has made, that need to be tested:

    Has Bespoke actually approached any LNP MP as a lobbyist? So far, no Coalition MP has stepped forward and said they were approached by Bespoke (apart from vague claims from Malcolm regarding anonymous MP’s), which seems odd to me, as I’d expect they’d be eager to do so considering the circumstances…

    Did the board, or NBNCo, pay for this? McKenna actually used the term “external advisers”, and I think under the circumstances, they are entitled to advice (even on the companies dime). If the individual board members paid for lobbying from their own pockets, then it’s their money (no matter how foolish the aim is). If NBNCo paid for lobbying, then I think they have crossed a line.

    There’s a whole pallet of grey in this so far, and more information needs to come out before it can be seen as black and white.

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