NBN Senate Committee politicised from start



opinion The Senate’s move to force senior executives from the National Broadband Network Company to appear before its new NBN committee starkly demonstrates the extreme degree of politicisation which the NBN project as a whole is subject to.

Almost three months ago, Australia held a Federal Election. During that election, Kevin Rudd’s Labor administration was given a solid all-round thumping by Tony Abbott’s Coalition team. A week and a half later, Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister, his Cabinet was sworn in to Ministerial and Parliamentary Secretary positions, and the new Coalition Government started getting on with business.

Something that everyone can agree on is that one of the most important tasks which the new Government has is reforming the National Broadband Network project which Labor embarked on from April 2009. The project, which represents Australia’s largest ever infrastructure endeavour and which will underpin much of the next half-century of Australian business and government initiatives, has gone demonstrably off the rails, with even its founder, former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, having admitted that the contracted construction model which NBN Co is currently using has broadly failed.

Opinions differ on what approach the new Government should take to the NBN. The Coalition itself appears to believe that the project as a whole should be modified to use alternative rollout schemas such as Fibre to the Node and/or Fibre to the Basement, to speed up the rollout and cut its costs. Others believe the Government should maintain Labor’s Fibre to the Premises rollout approach, but incorporate improvements such as more widely using the aerial fibre rollout mechanism (Delimiter 2.0 link).

Regardless of which combination of approaches is taken (and it will be a combination, rather than a single rollout approach), there will be one key document which will lay out the future path for the NBN. Dubbed the NBN ‘Strategic Review’, this report is due to be handed down in early December. It is currently being put together by NBN Co’s senior management team, with the assistance of the company’s extensive staff roster and a clutch of external consulting firms.

Until this document is published, the future of the NBN project as a whole very much remains up in the air. We know that all Australians will definitely receive upgraded broadband capability, no matter which side of politics is in power. But the precise form of that upgrade, and the timing, is not clear at the moment, and will not be for at least several more weeks.

In this context, the move yesterday by the Labor- and Greens-dominated Senate Select Committee on the NBN to force the attendance of senior NBN Co executives before its first public hearings this week comes across as petty and vindictive.

In a media release issued yesterday, the committee’s chair, Labor Senator Kate Lundy stated: “NBN Co personnel, including NBN Co’s Executive Chairman Dr Ziggy Switkowski; Head of Strategy and Transformation Mr JB Rousselot; Chief Operating Officer Mr Greg Adcock; Chief Technology Officer Mr Gary McLaren; and Chief Financial Officer Mr Robin Payne have been reluctant to attend the committee in person. The committee is disappointed that NBN Co have taken this position.”

“Today the committee has issued an order for NBN Co personnel to appear in person at the committee’s hearing on 29 November. It is with regret that we have had to issue this summons, given the public commitment the Government has made to openness and transparency in all matters relating to the NBN.”

In any normal circumstances, the committee’s expectation that senior NBN Co executives appear in its hearings and take questions on the status of the project would be entirely reasonable; any attempt to avoid this level of transparency would be an outrage. However, these are not normal circumstances.

Senior NBN Co spokespeople such as Switkowski and Adcock attended very similar Senate committee hearings just last week, as part of the Senate’s regular Estimates process. At those hearings, they took questions from several of the same Senators who will be sitting on the separate NBN Committee.

What emerged from that process was two realisations. Firstly, Switkowski’s first public appearance since being appointed as NBN Co chief executive demonstrated he would adhere very closely to the political line being pushed regarding the NBN by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Delimiter 2.0 link), who appointed Switkowski to his post. Sometimes, he came very close to repeating Turnbull’s view word for word.

Secondly, it became obvious during the proceedings that Switkowski would not be able to answer many of the questions that senators had for the executive, because of the fact that the Strategic Review had not yet been finalised. Many of those questions, as of yet, have no answers; and thus Switkowski could not give them.

The move by Lundy and the rest of the NBN Senate Select Committee (its other primary members are Conroy, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, and Labor Senator Lin Thorp) to enforce the attendance at the Committee this week of Switkowski and the rest of the NBN Co senior team can only be explained as playing politics.

The previous Senate Estimates hearings demonstrated that not only was Switkowski unable to provide much detail about NBN Co’s plans, he was unwilling to at this stage because of the position taken by Turnbull, his political patron. What has changed in little over a week? Nothing.

All through tomorrow, Labor Senators such as Lundy and Conroy, as well as Greens Senator Ludlam, will force NBN Co’s senior management to sit in a room in Parliament House and be pummelled with questions they will very likely not be able to answer yet.

The Senators will know that Delimiter is a site which has continually championd transparency and openness in all aspects of the political process when it comes to technology policy and projects.

However, what will occur in the Senate tomorrow will be nothing short of obstruction. Among many other policies, the Coalition took a substantial NBN reform program to the Federal Election. It is now attempting to enact that policy, with the NBN Strategic Review being the first step in that process. And even Labor has acknowledged that the NBN project is in substantial need of reform.

Dragging NBN Co’s senior executive team away from that job for a full day to take questions on which they as yet have no firm answers is not going to aid in that process; in fact, it will actively obstruct it, to no useful outcome. If you disagree with this premise, I invite you to ask yourself: What actual information are the Labor and Greens Senators hoping to extract from the various stakeholders they’ll be questioning? Almost all of that information will be material we already know; the rest will largely consist of inconsequential details. We’ve already started to see this trend evident in coverage of today’s committee hearings.

A far better approach would have been to hold these hearings after NBN Co hands down its Strategic Review. At that point, the Senate, and the Australian public, will actually be able to get some very useful information from NBN Co’s senior executive team. Doing anything else makes Labor look petty, vindictive and uninterested in the substantive issues; all qualities which contributed to it losing Government in the first place.

The Coalition might not have a very good NBN policy. But let’s at least let that policy get over the starting blocks before we start to hammer NBN Co executives in the Senate. There are other, more productive uses for Labor’s time right now, such as building links with the organic pro-FTTP NBN movement (Delimiter 2.0 link) which is doing a better job of promoting Labor’s NBN vision than Labor itself is.

Of course, none of this is surprising. The creation of the Senate Select Committee on the NBN was a politicised event right from the start. The very fact that it’s a Senate Committee and not a Joint Parliamentary Committee is evidence enough of that. Today, there are no Coalition Senators sitting on the Committee. It’ll be a field day for the Greens and Labor, especially considering Conroy’s personal knowledge of the project he’ll be asking questions on.

But it is disappointing. Lundy, Conroy and Ludlam have a great deal of integrity between them. I’d like to see some more adult behaviour here and less pointless politics for less than pointless outcomes. Politics is not a short-term game. But right now, all of these players appear to have forgotten that they, the NBN project itself, and the Australian public, are in this project for the long term. Please … let’s show at least a modicum of decorum. And let NBN Co get on with its job, for now.

I understand that readers are concerned by the Coalition’s NBN policy. I understand that Labor and the Greens have a job to do holding the Coalition Government to account. But there is legitimate fact-finding and there is obstruction. This week’s committee hearings will fall squarely into the latter camp. They will be of no objective use to anyone.

Image credit: Still from Parliamentary Broadcasting


  1. Can’t go with you on this one Renai. I think that the Strategic Review is not actually taking into account key critical path issues, such as the current state of the Telstra Copper Network (pretty key for a FTTN network), that we need some Senate intervention to ensure that the SR is as comprehensive and transparent as possible.

    I have to welcome this intervention BEFORE the review is released. Right now it looks like NBN Co. are looking to cherry pick issues to cover in the SR and unfortunately the Senate Comm is the only way they can be publicly forced (shamed) into doing a proper review.

    As we know, the LNP are very cleaver with their communication and are oft found to academically split hairs over minor communication errors and outright flip-flop on major ones (Gonski). Good on the committee.

  2. The previous Opposition did this on all possible occasions in the past and I never heard you complain in fact you screamed and complained about lack of transparency from NBN co.

    If you give guys these an inch they will take a mile.

    What will the excuse be next time?

    • Huh? Not sure what you’re talking about? Can you give me an example of an occasion where the Opposition has had to coerce NBN Co to appear before a Senate committee, and I have therefore complained about NBN Co’s lack of transparency?

      • They are 2 seperate issues
        1st was that Mike Quigley and NBNCo board members were hauled in front of the senate frequently and I am sure sometime that was inconvenient to them but they did it anyway without bitching about it I am sure there were many times they had other important things to do.

        Secondly you have penned many articles on this site bemoning the lack of transparency of the NBN project yet when it comes to this we don’t need it I listened today and I must say a lot of what was brought to light that would not have come out of the report proves that this was not a waste.

        For example the loss of revenue.
        The fact that the broadband quality review does not take into account copper line quality only what DSL equipment is installed.
        The actual state of the copper in much of the network and why it has degraded.

        To state this was a waste of time seems to miss the point the next committee will look at the review this one is looking at other things in fact if we had the review already some of these things would have been lost or missed.

        We know much more now than we did before and is that not the point?

        • Mate, you’re not making a lot of sense.

          “you have penned many articles on this site bemoning the lack of transparency of the NBN project”

          Yes, but in this case you have to ask, what could Lundy + Co ask NBN Co this week that they couldn’t have asked last week, and what could NBN Co answer? In short, what is anyone seeking to get from hauling NBN Co in again twice in two weeks?

          To go through your points …

          “For example the loss of revenue.”

          Which we knew.

          “The fact that the broadband quality review does not take into account copper line quality only what DSL equipment is installed.”

          The gross factor here is the distance of premises from the local exchange. I’m pretty sure the Department’s review will include at least some data on this, as it includes headline speeds.

          “The actual state of the copper in much of the network and why it has degraded.”

          How is anyone supposed to have learnt that today? Telstra isn’t appearing, to my knowledge.

          My entire point is that we will know pretty much nothing more than we knew before, as a result of these talks, because most of the things we need to know are going into the Strategic Review …

          • Did you not even bother to tune in?
            CEPU representative showed the actual condition of a lot of the network which was estimated by his workers to be representative of up to 70% of the network. Now that may be high I am not privy to what it is really like but if the condition of the network is that bad it may not be worth it even for free.

            Other dodgy behaviour like switching peoples lines so that they don’t meet the complaint threshold and move the faulty line to someone else. As you need 3 complaints in 60 days to get added to the acma statistics.

            I knew there would be a loss in revenue going to FttN as did you and everyone here except maybe Fibroid BUT this has never been published in the mainstream press before now there is an article in the Fairfax media would this have happened in a review next week likely not as it would have been drowned out by other details.

  3. I’d like to add my voice to those saying this is a good thing. Surely the Strategic Review isn’t being carried out by the senior executives by themselves? Does NBNCo not have competent senior staff who can hold the fort for one day?
    Or is it that without the top execs present, they might deviate from the party line and let some impartial analysis slip into the report?

    I think it’s crucial for the terms of reference of the review to be hauled out into public *before* the review is released, otherwise the results will be all anyone talks about, irrespective of how biased the ToR may have been. At that point Labour & the Greens will have let the Coalition chose the battlefield, and they’ll be in the position of trying to rebut the review with the public having less than half the story.

    • Hmm. Yes, the senior executives are all highly involved in the NBN Strategic Review. I’m not sure that there is a formal terms of reference for the Review — I thought that was contained in Turnbull’s publicly available Statement of Expectations delivered to NBN Co a couple of months ago.

    • Comments don’t seem to be open on *that* thread, but I have to agree with Renai. The ALP have been almost completely absent from the field when it comes to NBN discussion.

      For a stong FTTP supporter, I find that extremely disappointing!

      • Comments are open on the Delimiter 2.0 article it links to.

        While I agree with Renai and you there, well… it’s like this. The moment Labor start making moves to defend their vision, now it’s called politicisation (this article). That’s what zac was getting at, and an observation I concurred with.

      • It’s news to a lot of the electorate, which is why repeating the same questions as last week can be valuable: sometimes it takes the mainstream press a couple of repeats of an issue before they decide it’s worthy of reporting to the masses.

  4. “Today the committee has issued an order for NBN Co personnel to appear in person at the committee’s hearing on 29 November. It is with regret that we have had to issue this summons, given the public commitment the Government has made to openness and transparency in all matters relating to the NBN.”

    Question to the floor… did Quigley go to previous NBN hearings on his own accord or did he go kicking and screaming too?

    I’m actually asking, not being facetious, as I was under the impression Quigley was happy (or at least didn’t refuse) to attend …

  5. This is a good thing. Maybe you’re right, and no answers will come out of it. But maybe you’re wrong, and something will slip through. The chance of the latter makes it worth it. Either way, holding them to account is a good thing. Inviting the most senior executives to attend – those who have the most information – means you get a bigger picture of what is known at that point in time. The roles that the most senior executives handle can be delegated to their immediate subordinates for one day.

    Already, there have been admissions that the Coalition’s slower, more patchwork, NBN won’t make as much money – which implies two things: to return an investment, the project must cost much much less, or the wholesale prices must be significantly more. After all, as we know, 47% of users were projected to have opted for 12Mbps services – paying much less than the expected ARPU. Those basic users could now be expected to pay more. Where does that leave the pensioners? What are you going to do, make a direct subsidy?

    Allowing infrastructure competition, especially in the denser areas with lower rollouts costs and higher potential revenue, makes an even bigger hit to NBN Co’s revenue, further jeopardising the NBN’s ability to repay its investment. Existing anti-cherry picking laws don’t change that fundamental problem.

    You’ve said to others here that the fact that the Coalition’s policy will return less revenue “is not really news” (and it’s true) but it’s something you have never reported in your coverage of the competing NBN policies, and today a direct admission by the company of this fact is very significant (that’s why it has received coverage).

    Furthermore, generally accepted projections indicate that demand will be right behind or have outpaced the ability for FTTN to meet that demand as soon as it is built; and as soon as it is built, you will more than likely need to make an immediate new investment in an upgrade to FTTP, and if you do so you how can you repay the original investment?

    Platitudes like ‘the NBN will be rolled out faster, so it can generate revenue much faster to repay its investment’ completely denies reality. There are stories reporting that the FTTN rollout will not begin until 2015 (another such thing which “is not really news” – everyone knew it was obvious that it would take time to re-tool the NBN for FTTN), showing that the assertion is a bold lie.

    • “today a direct admission by the company of this fact”

      It was actually something the Department said …

      “There are stories reporting that the FTTN rollout will not begin until 2015 (another such thing which “is not really news” – everyone knew it was obvious that it would take time to re-tool the NBN for FTTN), showing that the assertion is a bold lie.”

      I’ve seen those stories and there’s not any basis to the claim.

      • > It was actually something the Department said …
        My mistake.

        > I’ve seen those stories and there’s not any basis to the claim.
        Where is the basis to the claim that we’ll have a minimum of 25Mbps for all Australians by 2016 (i.e. within three years)? At least the claim that -it will take time to change to FTTN- sounds plausible. Is two or even three years long enough to complete the FTTN network?

        What about the rest of the comment? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the broader issue of returning investment.

        I don’t see the Committee calling for NBN Co’s attendance as a big issue, certainly not an issue on par with the basic viability of the project. I think their attendance can only be a good thing. They should not be reluctant to attend in the first place; it’s part of their responsibilities. Quigley never was.

        If they had attended of their own volition, would this story exist?

        • Look.

          I take your points!

          But everything that is happening this week — these committee meetings, these tiny news stories, etc, is all bullcrap beside the big picture.

          Here we have Labor Senators squabbling with NBN Co over tiny issues, trying to find truth in tiny details. Meanwhile, there’s a much bigger picture here about how the NBN is going to be delivered.

          I don’t give a shit about tiny little details about the NBN. I want everyone to focus on the big picture. Dragging NBN Co’s entire senior management team away from their jobs for a day so they can not answer tiny, irrelevant questions and so that Labor can politically attack the Coalition doesn’t serve anyone.

          What would I rather have? NBN Co’s senior management team focused on their actual work, during a time of critical importance? Or NBN Co’s entire senior management team dragged away from that work for a whole day, to answer questions which they either don’t know the answer to or can’t answer yet? After they did the same week only ONE WEEK AGO?

          You gotta stop thinking small picture and start thinking big picture. These hearings are NOT what matters. It is the STRATEGIC REVIEW which matters, and which everyone should be focusing on.

          I’ve spent my entire career as a journalist focusing on shit which matters. And I’m telling you, these hearings are horseshit.

          • “Dragging NBN Co’s entire senior management team away from their jobs for a day”

            If their job is to rubber stamp Turnbull’s FTTN vision, then that can only be a good thing.

            If dragging them up in front of the committee reminds them of some hard truths about the problems with FTTN, that can only be a good thing.

            If getting them on the record as being aware of the failings of FTTN, before they come out in favour of it, well that might not matter in the long run but at least down the track they can’t use the excuse of “hocoodanode?”.

            And if we are really lucky, facts that are already well known on Delimiter might become known in the MSM.

          • @Graham

            ‘If dragging them up in front of the committee reminds them of some hard truths about the problems with FTTN, that can only be a good thing.’

            But the reviews have not been finished to even come close to determining that as a known, if all the Senate committee is going to do is to extract admissions “that the reviews have not finished yet” – well yeah we all know that so what other hard truths are left to be found out?

          • Renai,

            You have been suggesting for months now that NBNco be held accountable. That it has – “fallen off the rails” and espoused the need for stronger management and accountability.

            If you want them to be accountable, to do the job they are expected to do, that means senior management have to front up to senate committee meetings whether they like it, or not.

            That the committee has to compel them is, frankly, ridiculous. There should be no reason for this. Prior management fronted up. Just because there’s ‘new management’ doesn’t change the fact that they are accountable. Or mean they can just do whatever the hell they want.

            I don’t care if they get asked the same bloody questions each week, the fact that they are held accountable for billions of dollars of investment is a good thing.

            Nor do I care if NBNco 2.0 gets an utter mauling. They suffered the same thing under the last government. Indeed when the senate committee wasn’t having a go, the Opposition certainly was.

            Of course there is a review going on. That doesn’t obviate senior management from responsibilities.

            I don’t ever recall this being claimed as a waste of time, prior to the election. What gives??

          • “Dragging NBN Co’s entire senior management team away from their jobs for a day so they can not answer tiny, irrelevant questions and so that Labor can politically attack the Coalition doesn’t serve anyone.”

            Given that 30+ billion dollars is involved in either plan of using FTTN or FTTH, even small details add up to staggering sums of money. No multicast ability = more expensive online TV services, no speeds above 25mb/s in the short term, or above 50mb/s in the long term = less income to pay for the network build, 25mb/s nodes which are later upgraded to 50+mb/s = two truck roll outs and hence massive extra costs. These ia some of the information brought out into the public domain as a direct result of this senate Committee.

            As the dragging the senior management team away from their jobs, almost all the work is done by lower level staff anyway. How is this any different to Turnbull dragging them away for a photo opp with some NBNco techs with a roll of green cable ?

            Renai you need to look past the politics and see just what the questions asked and the answers given mean for the NBN and the country in general.

  6. @AJ

    ‘I really don’t care about the strategic review for one simple reason it will be a politically biased review stating FttN is the way to go based on dodgy figures that will be proven to be blatant lies.’

    Who is going to do the ‘proving it is blatant lies’ – you? – and what’s the proving process, one line such as ‘no that’s not correct’ end of statement, no more detail, and don’t ask for any.

    Renai, oh it’s gone, you can delete this response as well.

  7. The construction of the Opera House went “demonstrably off the rails”. With the benefit of hindsight and the ultimate (painful) delivery of that fanciful project, should Utzon have been sent packing even earlier than he was? We might be “in this project for the long term” but Malcolm’s main reason for insisting on something else promise to make a short term project and a lot of damage is done if the foundations are laid in the wrong place.

    Government secrecy generally, his stacking of the board with Telstra alumnae, history of reluctance to answer questions even when he was in selling mode and other activities suggests the inquiries do not meet the pub test when it comes to our expecting them to be impartial quests for truth and enlightenment.

    Getting as much as possible on the record before and after any enquiry findings see the light of day (assuming they do) is an important part of laying the groundwork for the next round of keeping the nation informed and bringing sanity to the project.

    Surely it does no harm to keep this issue on the agenda. It increase the chances the wider community will begin to understand the issues. Not everyone relies on Delimiter for their information.
    Given Telstra has given us a range of descriptions of the state of the copper, perhaps the more the question is asked, the closer we will get to the truth. Even if we have to calculate an average and standard deviation. A bit like Christopher Pyne and his off and on Gonski

    Will an inferior NBN be delivered one day earlier if these important folk are allowed to stay at their desks?

Comments are closed.