news The Opposition has forced senior executives from the National Broadband Network back to take questions from a Senate committee for the third time in a month, as debate grows about whether and to what extent such constant hearings represent obstruction of the company’s work.
Senior members of NBN Co’s executive team have already attended hearings before the Senate on several occasions over the past month. The first hearings were held under the auspices of the Senate Estimates process, with the Senate’s Committee of Environment and Communications questioning senior NBN Co figures such as executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski in mid-November.
Those hearings were largely characterised by non-committal answers from Switkowski to the Labor and Greens-dominated committee. At the time, Switkowski cited the fact that NBN Co had not yet completed its Strategic Review process — which will guide the future of the company — as reasons for not being able to give detailed answers as to the company’s future plans and current status.
Following those hearings, in late November the newly established NBN Senate Select Committee, which at that time had no Coalition members, being solely composed of Labor and Greens Senators, requested senior NBN Co figures appear before its separate hearings. At that stage, the NBN Co senior executive team indicated it was reluctant to attend. Consequently, the Committee compelled the executives to attend.
The hearings were dominated by confrontational question and answer sessions often led by former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who took an aggressive stance with bureaucrats from the Department of Communications and executives from NBN Co that verged at times on being offensive to the individuals concerned.
In a statement issued this afternoon, Conroy noted that the NBN Senate Select Committee had scheduled its next public hearing for tomorrow, Wednesday 11 December. It had again invited senior NBN Co executives to attend.
“NBN Co personnel, including NBN Co’s 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 once again been reluctant to attend the committee,” said Conroy, who has been appointed temporary chair of the committee in the absence of Labor Senator Kate Lundy.
“NBN Co was given one week’s notice about the hearing, with the committee again changing the hearing date to accommodate an NBN Co board meeting. Despite the committee’s best efforts, NBN Co has informed the committee that it will not appear as requested.” Therefore, Conroy noted, the committee had once again issued an order for NBN Co personnel to appear in person at the committee’s hearing on 11 December.
“It is with regret that the committee has had to issue this summons,” said Conroy. “It follows another summons issued to NBN Co by the committee last month. The previous summons was only issued after the committee went to great lengths to accommodate NBN Co’s existing commitments, including changing the hearing date.”
Conroy claimed the behaviour was at odds with Minister Turnbull’s commitment to more transparency by NBN Co. When releasing NBN Co’s Interim Statement of Expectations on 24 September 2013, Minister Turnbull said: “But our commitment is, our focus is, to have a much greater level of transparency and openness.”
“The committee is investigating and analysing the Coalition’s $30 billion broadband policy and it is expected that NBN Co will cooperate with the committee’s work,” said Conroy.
It is unclear precisely what Conroy hopes to achieve from the Committee hearings involving NBN Co tomorrow. The company has not yet released the results of its Strategic Review, although it is expected to do so later this week. The Committee hearings may pre-empt the release of the Strategic Review report, which will encapsulate all the detail of NBN Co’s future plans.
In addition, a number of the NBN Co executives ordered to attend the hearings — such as chief operating officer Greg Adcock and head of strategy and transformation JB Rousselot — have only been on board with NBN Co for a very short period of time, meaning they may not have sufficient experience with the company’s operations to answer the Senate’s questions.
Matthew Sorell, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, wrote following the last set of hearings that it was becoming “increasingly clear that politics is getting the way of good policy”.
“Dr Switkowski was in the hot seat on Friday, making the clear point that he is focused on expanding the footprint of the NBN rollout to get it back on track, and this is how it should be,” wrote Sorrell. “But it is unfortunate that the politics of the NBN is sucking the oxygen out of the task of getting the job done, and the blame lies in equal measure with both sides of politics.”
In addition, the reason there is no joint Parliamentary Committee examining the NBN — as was the case under the previous Parliament — is that Labor, the Coalition and the Greens could not agree on how such a committee should be constituted. With their dominance of the Senate, Labor and the Greens subsequently set up a separate NBN Senate Select Committee, which does not involve most of the major NBN political players, because they sit in the House of Representatives.
I am currently disgusted with both sides of politics when it comes to their handling of the NBN. What would it hurt Conroy and Co to wait a few days until NBN Co releases its Strategic Review, as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said it will do this week, before holding the next round of committee hearings? As I wrote several weeks ago:
“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.
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.”
I hope you’re proud, Senator Conroy. With your aggressive appearances before the committee last time around, you started to erode a lot of the respect you had built up over the past few years as the instigator of the NBN project. Let’s hope you can show some decorum and reserve — or god forbid, some actual leadership — this time around. Departmental bureaucrats and NBN Co executives are not your punching bag. And it would be nice to wait until the Government actually announces their plans before trying to dig all the detail out of NBN Co’s staff.