opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
20 November 2013
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting
Ziggy Switkowski’s first substantial public appearance since being appointed NBN Co chief executive has starkly demonstrated just how different he is from his predecessor, Mike Quigley, and just how strictly he will adhere to the guidelines which his patron, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has set for him.
Over the four years that Mike Quigley held the reins of the National Broadband Network Company as its founding chief executive, I gradually began to look forward with a certain pleasure to the appearances which the executive was required to make before the various NBN-related committees of the Federal Parliament.
Those readers who regularly watch Senate Estimates or joint Parliamentary Committee hearings will know that the proceedings can usually be best described as little more than a farce.
With a certain limited number of exceptions, these committee hearings follow a very predictable formula. An outside witness, usually a senior bureaucrat or the chief executive of a government business enterprise or authority, is summoned to appear and give testimony. Sometimes it’s an executive or industry representative from the private sector.
Depending on whether they sit on the Government or Opposition benches, politicians will attempt to use their time questioning the subject to score cheap political points on the opposing party, while the subject feebly flails about in a pathetic attempt to defend their own honour. Departmental bureaucrats will usually be accompanied by their Minister, who will fend off the most vicious attacks, and sometimes the committee chair will step in to separate combatants before they claw each others’ eyes out. Sometimes subjects read a short prepared speech before being questioned; it is customary for everyone to ignore whatever is said in this irrelevant precursor to battle.
Occasionally, usually with the Greens or Independents, an MP may make an honest attempt to politely question the subject to get actual useful information. This is usually viewed with horror by politicians from the two major parties, who generally believe such behaviour is a morally reprehensible waste of everyone’s time.
The whole thing inevitably makes me want to puke.
It’s a farce, a pantomime; and what’s more, one that’s being funded with taxpayer dollars which we did not choose to spend, on actors who most of us would like to see turned over and given a hard spanking rather than high political office. But then, that’s democracy.
In these proceedings, former NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley was always very obviously an anomaly; an element of the show who didn’t fit in.
If you watch Quigley’s performances before parliamentary committees (see an example here), what comes across is an overriding sense of the executive’s fundamental decency, honesty and transparency. Faced with hostile questions about the National Broadband Network project which he was spearheading, Quigley’s approach to politicians of all stripes was always polite and patient.
It was always the executive’s habit to give a detailed opening statement at the proceedings which would illustrate the current status of the NBN project. From the safety of its workers to the number of premises passed and its plans for the next few months, Quigley would rattle off facts and figures with the quietly confident aura of a seasoned executive at a board meeting, while politicians of all stripes fidgeted and tried to appear as though they understood what he was talking about.
That opening ritual done, Quigley would sit in his chair and calmly respond to all of the questions thrown his way, gently disarming barbs from the Opposition questioning his personal history and going into detail to satisfy the concerns of the Greens.
By his side usually sat then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, but the Labor Senator rarely needed to defend Quigley from particularly harsh questions; after four decades with French networking vendor Alcatel-Lucent, there really wasn’t much that Quigley couldn’t handle.
If you followed the Twitter stream generated by those watching the broadcast live, it was apparent that many were actually cheering for Quigley. The executive’s sheer dignity under heavy fire earned him the undying loyalty of many Australian technologists and helped paint him as a man untouched by politics, despite being surrounded by politicians.
It was the memory of these praiseworthy appearances in Parliament by Quigley that so disheartened me when I got the chance to catch some of the first performance in the arena this week by the executive’s successor, new NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski.
My displeasure with Ziggy’s appointment is well-known. As I wrote several weeks before the executive’s new role at NBN Co was announced, Switkowski is ill-qualified to lead the National Broadband Network rollout. The executive spent just one year in the late 1990’s at Optus, during a period of crisis in the company, led Telstra into a deep stasis in the 2000′s and hasn’t touched the telecommunications industry for the past decade. Compared with an engineer-by-training like Mike Quigley who’s spent forty years working with networks and network hardware, Switkowski looks like a lightweight.
But what I didn’t anticipate was just how stultifying Switkowski’s public appearances would be, and just how closely the executive would toe the (Coalition’s) party line when taking questions on the NBN rollout which he’s now in charge of.
To make this argument, I want to table two primary pieces of evidence. The first is the complete text of the statement which Switkowski read out to the Senate Estimates Committee on Communications and the Environment this week. You can download it here in Microsoft Word format.
In it, Switkowski starts by praising his predecessor, Quigley, for “the extraordinary effort” the executive outlaid in building NBN Co from the ground up and laying the foundations for “every Australian to be able to receive very fast broadband”.
But from then on, Switkowski wholeheartedly departs from Quigley’s standard line and adopts the language and approach which the Coalition has used for years to criticise the NBN.
Switkowski’s statement doesn’t mention facts or figures about the NBN rollout. It doesn’t mention NBN Co’s staff. It doesn’t mention much about its contractors. It doesn’t mention much about better broadband service delivery. It avoids, in short, any discussion about the actual technology being used in the NBN rollout, the actual company administering the rollout, or the contractors — the things that engineers like Quigley are interested in.
Instead, Switkowski spent time justifying NBN Co’s move to hire ex-Telstra staff who Turnbull’s office had personal contact with before the election. He spent time defending the Coalition’s controversial move to radically alter the NBN public rollout map. And he spent time refuting the allegation that the Coalition has already slowed down the NBN rollout. He also spent time discussing the fact that a “mix” of technologies was required for the rollout — not the simple FTTP model which Labor established NBN Co to build.
There was also a great deal of implied criticism of the previous Labor governance of the project.
“For me, the priority right now is not how many premies are passed or how many FSAMs are published on a map,” Switkowski told the committee. “The priority is restoring balance to, and confidence in, the entire supply chain – from design, through construction, to activation of services right across the nation.”
At times, the executive even picked words directly from his political superior’s phrasebook, referring to the “heroic” rollout forecasts which Turnbull loves to criticise the previous Labor administration for.
Defending one side of politics and criticising the other — sometimes with your own political masters’ words. It’s not something one could envision Mike Quigley doing — the former NBN Co executive was always at pains to be polite and slightly distanced from all, even the person of his own master, then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. In fact, there was at times a sense that Conroy deferred to Quigley as having the greater expertise with respect to the NBN. Not so with Switkowski, who clearly defers to Turnbull.
The second piece of evidence I present is the question and answer session between Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam and Switkowski, which I can only describe as extraordinary.
Ludlam asked Switkowski a series of basic questions — ranging from whether he would support a FTTP rollout for the NBN if NBN Co’s Strategic Review found it still to be worth it, to how upgradable to FTTP a Fibre to the Node rollout would be, to the structural separation of Telstra, to the issue of a uniform national wholesale price, to the long-term viability of Fibre to the Node and more. Switkowski’s answers were extremely guarded, referred frequently to the Coalition’s NBN policy and presented very little information that was not already publicly known.
Quigley was often wont to discuss the wider dynamics of the broadband industry in what appeared to be an attempt to educate parliamentarians about the dynamics of technological change. His discussions with parliamentarians could, at times, be expansive. Switkowski was the opposite. He downplayed the need for broadband speeds of 100Mbps, downplayed any need to upgrade a FTTN network to FTTP in future, poured cold water on the prospect of achieving 1Gbps in the retail broadband market any time in the next decade and stated that it was not possible to predict what infrastructure would be needed in the telco sector some ten years’ hence.
In parliamentary committee hearings, Mike Quigley often seemed bewildered at the fact that he was being asked obviously personally offensive or leading questions by politicians. His honesty stood out clearly in such an environment. In comparison, Switkowski often seemed bewildered that Ludlam would make inquiries which so obviously questioned the very thrust of the Coalition’s NBN policy. Quigley disarmed parliamentarians with his honesty. In turn, Ludlam’s honest questions seeking honest answers to questions much of the Australian population is asking seemed to leave Switkowski at a loss for words.
To me, the essential difference between Quigley and Switkowski displayed in these public appearances is one of how they view their role in wider society. For Quigley, the telco sector appears to be embarked on a slow but very predictable march towards a certain set of well-understood technologies — principally, fibre cables, 4G/5G mobile services, and high-speed satellites. Quigley often seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the future — a future he wanted a large part in creating. He would work with politicians, but it always appeared as though he saw himself as part of a much wider, inevitable process of positive, inevitable technological change. That change would go on regardless of the politicians, who would sometimes need to be educated about that change.
For Switkowski, the future of the sector is murky, difficult to determine year by year, and in need of constant re-examination. Consumer needs should be examined today — but not necessarily in terms of ten years’ hence. The future was uncertain, unclear, and worth dealing with only when it actually arrived. And most of all, it’s importance to adhere to the words and policies of politicians — not all politicians, mind you, just those who are your particular patrons — in seeking to enact their vision.
It is true to say that the NBN needs a dramatic change to its rollout approach. The previous approach driven by Labor failed, and the project is foundering. Quigley has quite a bit to answer for, as does ex-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Very few of the promises the pair delivered to the Australian population in reassuring tones actually came to pass. Now it’s the Coalition’s turn to take its hand with the NBN; a situation which is pretty much completely justified.
But I will say this: Switkowski’s appearance before the Senate Estimates Committee on Communications this week was not reassuring. There was every indication that the executive was not interested in honestly and transparently discussing issues surrounding the NBN in public, and every indication that he was determined to hold to the political line established by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. For engineers and technologists, this kind of behaviour is disturbing. It marks a sharp break from the past of honest, independence and transparency set by Mike Quigley, and sets the NBN’s sails for an uncertain future. Let’s hope Switkowski has a clear vision from here on in: Because it’s his hands on this very important wheel.