news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has mocked the tenure of outgoing NBN Co chief Mike Quigley in leading the National Broadband Network Company, comparing the respected executive to the “Captain of the Titanic” in what Turnbull claimed was an inability to get the job done with respect to the NBN.
A former global Alcatel-Lucent executive of 30-years standing, Quigley led NBN Co from mid-2009, when he was appointed as its first employee, through to the September Federal Election. Slightly after that point, he retired, with the Coalition appointing former Telstra and Optus chief executive Ziggy Switkowski to fill his shoes temporarily as executive chairman, until a permanent replacement is found.
Last week, Quigley gave a wide-ranging speech to TelSoc, a society focused on the telecommunications industry which hosts regular networking activities and lectures. At the event, held in Telstra’s offices in Sydney’s CBD, the executive was presented with the Charles Todd Medal for “outstanding services to telecommunications in Australia”. The executive is widely considered one of the most respected Australian telecommunications executives, due both to his time at NBN Co as well as his time at Alcatel-Lucent. The full speech is available online, along with PowerPoint slides Quigley used at the event.
Both sides of politics generally consider the rollout model of the NBN to have broadly failed, with its external contractor model at the heart of the problem. Quigley acknowledged this in his speech. However, the executive also outlined a number of other accomplishments which he felt NBN Co achieved during his four years leading the company.
They include, in Quigley’s words: Building from scratch a company of close to 3000 people with all of the processes and systems needed; Launching a successful Interim Satellite service; Building a Long Term Satellite solution that is on schedule and on budget for services beginning in mid 2015; Rolling out a Fixed Wireless network; Building a Transit Network to support all access technologies, which is on budget and on schedule for completion by 2015; and the Development of OSS/BSS IT systems that have been proven to function at scale together with the establishment of a National Test Facility and a Network Operations Centre.
In addition, Quigley noted that NBN Co had successfully developed and launched a suite of Products covered by NBN Co’s wholesale agreements; Getting close to the finalisation of a 27-year Special Access Undertaking agreement; Building a Greenfields fibre capability that can complete more than 30 new developments a week, anywhere in the country; Building a Customer Connect capability that had connected more than 100,000 end users and which was rapidly growing the ability to deal with with the exceptionally high take-up rates that were being experienced; And a growing capability to build the [local network/distribution network] component of the Brownfields network at a cost that preserves the integrity of NBN Co’s financial plan.
Quigley finished his speech by advising the company’s new management to get on with the job of fulfilling the Coalition’s Fibre to the Node vision for the project and not to politicise it further. He noted that the project would have been more successful had it enjoyed bipartisan support from both the Coalition and Labor.
In addition, in a separate interview with The Guardian Australia, Quigley stated that it was his opinion that Labor’s version of the NBN was “one hurdle” away from being on track to be completed on budget and on time.
Quigley told the publication that the last big hurdle was finalising contracts for digging holes for the NBN infrastructure. “I expected the most difficult part of the project to be the huge IT systems we have to deal with – I didn’t think we were going to have a problem with digging holes in the ground,” he said.
Speaking in Parliament last week (YouTube video here), Turnbull, who has been a long-standing critic of Quigley dating back to his appointment as Shadow Minister three years ago, said that one of the problems with the NBN in regions such as Townsville was that the previous Labor administration, “for purely ideological reasons”, refused to allow NBN Co to use Fibre to the Basement-based NBN rollout mechanisms, forcing the network to use an almost universal Fibre to the Premises rollout scheme.
“This is pure ideology,” said Turnbull. “As a consequence, nearly half of all the premises in Townsville that are supposedly passed with NBN fibre cannot connect at all.”
“The Labor Party has often struggled with getting over these final hurdles, such as actually connecting people to the network. So imagine my surprise yesterday when the former NBN Co CEO said, ‘Were it not for one more problem and the network could have been built on time and on budget.’ He said, ‘I didn’t think we were going to have a problem with digging holes in the ground,'” said Turnbull.
“Given that the project involved digging holes in every street and every front garden in Australia, it is remarkable this problem came as a surprise. It does cause me to wonder what the proponents of other mismanaged ventures could have said as they reflected on the failures: ‘I didn’t think we would have problems with icebergs’—captain of the Titanic. ‘I didn’t think we would have a problem with frostbite’—Napoleon.”
Speaking in Parliament after Turnbull, Shadow Assistant Communications Minister Michelle Rowland took Turnbull to task for his repeated attacks on Quigley over the years.
“I do want to mention—and it was mentioned in question time today—the Minister attacking Mike Quigley yet again,” said Rowland. “He has a habit of doing that, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, as I am sure you well know, having been a member of the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network with me in the previous parliament.”
Rowland said she did not want to attack NBN Co’s new executive chairman, Switkowski. However, the MP questioned Turnbull’s judgement in appointing Switkowski. Rowland pointed out that Switkowski had been approached by Turnbull for potential assistance with the NBN “well before the election”.
“He also confirmed that he worked at NBN Co. now for three and a half days a week,” Rowland said, highlighting Switkowski’s divided commitments. “How much does three and a half days a week make per month? He is making $50,000 a month. I know that is beer money—Bollinger money—for the minister, but for the rest of us it is not an insignificant amount.”
Turnbull has previously attacked Quigley a number of times in public, seemingly with no justification. On several occasions the MP sharply criticised Quigley’s involvement with his previous employer Alcatel-Lucent, over corruption allegations in South America. However, it was shown that Quigley had no connection with the allegations.
On another occasion in July this year, Turnbull erroneously claimed Quigley had been “fired” from his role as NBN Co chief executive, despite the fact that the executive had actually retired from his role. The comments appeared to leave the Liberal MP open to the possibility of defamation action due to damage to Quigley’s reputation.
The difference between Mike Quigley and Malcolm Turnbull could not have been be more starkly displayed last week.
The politely spoken and dignified Quigley laid out, in extreme technical detail, what he thought NBN Co had accomplished over his time leading the company. He did so to a technical audience, who he no doubt hoped to pass on some lessons to. He acknowledged NBN Co’s mistakes. And he exhorted NBN Co’s team to support the Coalition’s Fibre to the Node-based policy.
In response, Minister Turnbull mocked Quigley in Federal Parliament, using the highest-profile venue available to him, comparing the respected executive to the Captain of the Titanic and accusing him of naivity when it came to the NBN project. Turnbull further did not acknowledge any of Quigley’s accomplishments in virtually single-handedly setting up the NBN Co that exists today. You know. The NBN Co which will be delivering Turnbull’s NBN policy.
None of this is a surprise. Turnbull’s behaviour towards Quigley over the past three years has been nothing short of appalling. He has slandered the executive at every opportunity, tried to embarrass and discredit him, put him under extreme amounts of pressure, and even threatened to have him removed, should he not resign of his own accord under a Coalition Government. It’s probably a good thing Quigley retired when he did.
In response, Quigley has gotten on with the job and offered Turnbull nothing but politeness. Never once, that I’ve seen, has he grown angry towards the Member for Wentworth or lost his temper. Instead, he offered Turnbull private briefings on the NBN (which Turnbull never took up) and even pushed NBN Co’s staff to support Turnbull’s rival policy in Government.
Well, the proof is in the pudding. Let’s see who can deploy the NBN better. Quigley had four years to set up the project. He failed on some fronts but succeeded on many others. In the process, he kept his dignity intact and earned the undying respect of most of Australia’s technology community. Whether you agree that it’s justified or not, Quigley’s name is always spoken in my hearing by technical people with respect. Almost universally, those same people speak Turnbull’s name with frustration and anger … sometimes contempt.
Let’s see whether Turnbull can do better than Quigley over the next four years and earn that respect back. He better get hopping. As NBN Co’s own internal evaluation of the Coalition’s NBN policy has shown, the Minister has a job of work ahead of him. And there will be many of us who will be writing mini-report cards for the Duke of Double Bay along the way. Karma’s a bitch; I hope Turnbull expects much of the same vitriol coming his way that he dealt out to Quigley, if he fails to live up to his NBN promises in turn.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting