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