Morrow must receive the dignity that Quigley never did



opinion Those opposed to the Coalition’s rival broadband policy must not step over the line into offensiveness in their pursuit of NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow over past failures at US utility Pacific Gas & Electric. The better path of valor would be to treat Morrow with the same level of respect and dignity that his predecessor Mike Quigley deserved, but never got.

It’s a spectacular day outside in Sydney today — unseasonably warm, with a bright sun high in a cloudless sky. Our beaches will be packed with those enjoying the sunshine and glorious water. But inside the halls of power of Australia’s telecommunications industry, an odious stink of revenge has started tainting the fresh air. Dark thoughts have started circling and the outlook is stormy.

The cause of the stink is the news which The Guardian broke late on Friday night that Bill Morrow, the executive hand-picked by the new Coalition Government to revamp Labor’s National Broadband Network project in its own image, had been named in a wide-ranging shareholder lawsuit over a series of tragic events at his former employer, Pacific Gas and Electric.

You can read the legal documents yourself (PDF), but the basics of the case are pretty clear: Throughout 2008 and 2010, a series of unfortunate accidents in the San Francisco utility’s infrastructure had tragic consequences; killing a total of nine people and damaging about a hundred homes.

Morrow had a short-lived involvement with PG&E, having served as its president and chief executive for just two years from 2006 through mid-2008, with part of that time as chief operating officer. However, the executive’s tenure at the company came at a critical time; immediately preceding the accidents. And of course, he was rewarded handsomely for his efforts with more than US$8 million in benefits.

To the long-term observer of Labor’s NBN project, the revelation has more than a hint of deja vu about it. After all, Morrow’s predecessor at NBN Co, the company’s founding chief executive Mike Quigley, had barely been in his role for 18 months before a similar style of accusation was dredged up about his involvement in a similar case at his previous employer, then-US-based networking firm Alcatel.

Some of the specifics of Quigley’s situation were different. It was corruption in Alcatel’s South American divisions, not tragic accidents, that the US justice system was investigating. And although Quigley did hold a very senior US role at his company at the time, he wasn’t directly in charge in the same sense that Morrow was at Pacific Gas & Electric.

However, in a broad sense the thrust of the situation with respect to both executives is almost precisely the same. Both NBN Co chief executives have been accused of playing a pivotal role in wrongdoing with respect to a former employer in the US; both were named in legal action; and the competency of both to lead NBN Co will be called into question as a result.

Now, if you view matters from one point of view, it is entirely correct that Morrow will face questions about the Pacific Gas & Electric issue. NBN Co is engaged in a vast national construction effort, which Morrow is directly responsible for overseeing. This effort, lest we not forget, has already resulted in one fatality, and there will be countless small injuries associated with it in future. Any construction effort of this magnitude would face the need to ensure safety issues are paramount.

Morrow will be held personally responsible for any injuries to occur under his watch at NBN Co and rightly so. In this context, all stakeholders in the NBN process are entitled to question whether Morrow’s past history at PG&E demonstrates a callous approach to safety issues that will inform how NBN Co goes about its own construction effort.

However, at this time it is also important to remember that Morrow deserves to be treated with respect and dignity through this process.

NBN observers will recall that when Quigley faced the same situation, primarily throughout 2011 and 2012, the executive was savaged constantly by both then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Murdoch press in Austraila for his perceived role in Alcatel’s corruption scandal.

At the time, Turnbull has latched on to ongoing speculation by a small number of media outlets about a potential link between Quigley and what went on at Alcatel half a decade previously to launch a considered and deliberate campaign against the NBN Co chief, in an attempt to undermine and ultimately destroy his personal credibility as the man responsible for implementing Labor’s NBN policy.

Despite the fact that the evidence eventually completely exonerated Quigley of any wrongdoing on the issue, Turnbull never let up on the topic, and hounded the executive until his retirement shortly before last year’s Federal Election.

And even upon his departure, Turnbull couldn’t resist the opportunity to sink the knife deep into Quigley’s back, publicly and inaccurately claiming that Quigley was “fired” from his role as NBN Co chief executive, in comments which appeared to leave the Liberal MP open at the time to the possibility of defamation action.

I don’t know right now whether, or to what extent, Morrow was negligent in the PG&E case. The evidence thus far appears to show that the issues the US utility faced had more to do with a 15 year failure to invest in its infrastructure, rather than anything that Morrow personally did during his mere two years leading the company. And it is also true that this kind of shareholder lawsuit in the US, which is unfortunately pretty common due to the country’s litigious nature, usually paints with a broad brush, naming anyone of any stature who could be related even vaguely to the situation at hand.

We’ll definitely find out in time as the suit proceeds.

But the message I want to send to those already girding for war against Morrow over the issue is that you must not make the same mistakes Turnbull did when pursuing Quigley. You must not step over the line into offensive behaviour.

It is absolutely fine to question Morrow over the PG&E issue. It is absolutely fine to report the progress of the US case. It is absolutely fine to dig into the evidence about Morrow’s past history as an executive and speculate on what that might mean for his time at NBN Co. In fact, these are things which should be done, to keep the executive accountable.

However, what would absolutely not be fine would be for the current Opposition or anyone else to undertake the same sort of disgraceful and baseless character attack against Morrow that Turnbull did in Opposition. It is not fine to play the man and not the ball, when it comes to NBN Co. Discussion about Morrow’s past roles needs to be based on evidence and not mere speculation. If Morrow gives satisfactory answers on the matter, as Quigley did, he should not be hounded persistently for his honesty and transparency.

Such an effort would be unsightly, as Turnbull’s attempted character assassination of Mike Quigley was unsightly. It would further undercut the stability of our already shaky democracy and rules of engagement for political and corporate life, signalling to other competent executives that leading a major government entity is akin to stepping in a pit of vicious vipers. As Gandhi famously said, revenge doesn’t work. An eye for an eye will merely leave the whole world blind.

Discussion about the National Broadband Network policy should also inherently be based on that policy, rather than taking the form of extended personality attacks against those enacting it. It is appropriate to question — as Delimiter has regularly questioned — the appointment process for senior executives involved in the process, as well as their actions in their positions and the actions of politicians.

But when commentary starts to stray beyond the available evidence and into conjecture, when discussion shifts from policy and towards personality, and when questioners refuse to take honestly given answers in the spirit of transparency in which they are provided, then the whole situation starts to stray into the kind of witch hunt which Turnbull conducted against Quigley. I would not see that situation repeated with Bill Morrow.

We’ve already seen Labor vowing to pursue Morrow over the issue in the Senate Estimates process which kicks off this week. Let me warn senior Labor figures — especially former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who has an acid tongue at times — that I will tolerate no offensive behaviour towards Morrow, just as I came down hard on offensive behaviour towards Quigley. This is a very serious game — so let’s respect its rules.

Lastly, I wish at this point to note that my personal opinion is that I strongly suspect Morrow will emerge from this process largely unscathed.

I’ve been dealing with the executive since early 2012, when he was appointed chief executive of Vodafone Australia. In that time, I have never found the executive anything less than 100 percent honest and transparent, and I have never seen a shred of unethical behaviour from Morrow. While I do not agree with all of the decisions that he has made at NBN Co, there is no doubt that he is acting with integrity and to directly meet the needs of the company’s many stakeholders.

I have a great deal of personal confidence and trust in Morrow. That trust is not base on bulldust and moonshine. It’s based on the only gold standard I know: Evidence of past behaviour. Everything Morrow has done at Vodafone and NBN Co so far exudes decisiveness, competence and integrity. It will take a lot to convince me that the executive has been involved in significant wrongdoing. Morrow has earned that. Let’s not throw his reputation away without serious just cause.

To some readers this commentary may sound counter-intuitive — why not treat Morrow the same way Turnbull treated Quigley. To those who are still thinking this I would ask you the following question: Do you want to be a better person than Malcolm Turnbull? Or do you wish to sink to his level?

Image credit: NBN Co


  1. While I agree, we don’t want to sink to the low level of politics that Turnbull did with Mr Quigley, nevertheless, the same level of scrutiny should be made in light of the revelations.

    • If by “scrutiny” you mean the approach The Australian took (the only media outlet to go hardcore on the issue), then I disagree — I don’t think we need that level of “scrutiny”. That style of reporting was … unorthodox.

      • Agreed – as much as Liberal supporters took delight in attacking Quigley for everything up to and including the death of grandma’s cat, it would be hypocritical for Labor supporters to attack Morrow in the same way.

        Let the legal processes take their course.

        • Yeah, let the process take its course. If he has anything to answer for, it’ll come out in due course.

          The other side of me says, throw the mud back at them. The political stooges put in place have enough to answer to, but if Turnbull refuses to acknowledge the issue, create it some other way.

          Doesnt need to be to the same degree they pushed with Quigley, but asking the right questions should be done. Is this investigation distracting Morrow from his responsibiliites, and should he temporarily step down until he is exonerated would be one avenue.

          No mud slinging, just a fair question.

      • No.. I don’t endorse news corpse level of scrutiny, but I do endorse parliamentary and Senate scrutiny in the public interest. That’s all.

      • This does need severe scrutiny as it relates to both professional misconduct and safety. Does it need the personal attacks that happened to Quigley – absolutely not but it does require a full disclosure of the both the facts of what the government knew and the legal case against Morrow as this goes to his fitness to run the NBN. Added to that the Federal Indictment against the company Morrow ran only occurred last month so that needs to be understood also. As with many of these types of circumstances Morrow should stand aside until the case and the indictment have outcomes – to stay in the role during this period would be extremely poor governance.

  2. If Bill Morrow acted with “integrity” so far with the NBN, he would make the facts accessible and transparent in regards to the building of a national infrastructure project. I don’t think this will happen, he will kowtow to his masters, take the money and disappear and leave this country with us to despair at the miserable wreck that is the CBN.

    • And that’s his job. The government is in charge and he probably has an iron clad contract to adhere to. Probably a similar one to Simon Hackett (which is probably why we’ve heard very little from him CBN wise).

      It’s the Ministers in charge of the project that need to be held accountable at this stage.

      • I asked questions of Simon going back almost 6 months ago (at the release of the SP) and reminded him of those questions about 3 months ago. Still no answer on them. In fact, I’ve heard very little out of Simon with regard to NBN Co since the Strategic Plan was released. Sign of a guilty conscience or the old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.” (also, likely written in to his lucrative contract)?

    • Oh please! Either you are working for him or with him or you haven’t read the allegations, the fines already levied against PG&E or the Federal Indictment now with the FBI. Morrow has no right to be in charge of the NBN with that hanging over him.

  3. The Australian is a waste of space. It’s just preaching to a small, niche market of like-minded people though. The only way it could be of any use to a wider audience is if they printed it on soft paper with perforations.

    Turnbull was a disgrace in the way he treated Quigley. I hope we can be better than that when it comes to Morrow.

  4. Turnbull picked Morrow. Newscorp is best friends with Turnbull’s party. There is literally nobody left to demean Morrow.

  5. It almost seems fair. I mean, one side of politics gets away with slinging mud like a 50t excavator, the other takes the high road and lets the facts speak for themselves…..

    Who won the election again?

    • And if someone started viciously attacking Mr Morrow, who would be standing on the battlements defending him? Our friend Malcolm. Hypocrisy much?

  6. NBNCo shouldn’t be blamed for Turnbull….

    But Tunbull should be blamed for NBNCo.

  7. I see this as two separate issues.

    In one case, the investigation cleared (or at least didn’t implicate) a guy accused of bribery.

    in the other case, 9 people died after executives (including Morrow) are “alleged to have placed “profits over safety” and diverted more than $100 million over 15 yeas from gas safety and operations.” (

    “For its part, the CPUC has roundly criticised PG&E for inadequate safety practices, internal cost-cutting practices outside industry norms, and the alleged diversion of maintenance funds to executive bonuses and shareholder returns.” (

    So in Bills case it comes down to how much control/knowledge did he have over any of this going on while he was COO/CEO?

    The company has already been pinged for the accidents (by the California Public Utilities Commission and the National Transport Safety Board), so it’ll all come down to what gets pinned to whom in the lawsuit.

    Unlike Malcolm, I’m willing to keep an open mind on it till then and consider Mr Morrow on his current actions.

  8. Would a person of integrity have chosen to accept the job of CEO of NBN Co under Turnbull’s watch? Maybe it’s not so black and white… Maybe he had nothing to do with sudden removal of key FTTP era executives a week after he started…

    • “Would a person of integrity have chosen to accept the job of CEO of NBN Co under Turnbull’s watch?”


  9. You can’t be serious. Not only is there a lawsuit of which Morrow is clearly in the middle of in regard to the allegations around the lack of addressing known issues, the company he led has already been fined by the Californian authority over breaches to the PSA (pipeline safety act) and as of last month there is now an indictment from a US Federal grand jury to the FBI outlining 12 violations that PG&E knowingly and willingly violated the act between 2003 & 2010!! The allegations against Morrow are serious, very serious – misconduct that had catastrophic results. Not on any level is it ok to say that he should be left alone. If he had any sense of responsibility here he would step aside. He is the CEO of the largest infrastructure project in Australia and he is being sued over safety negligence, wilful negligence, with a previous employer and as of a weeks ago there is now a Federal Indictment against the company he was CEO of for willingly and knowingly violating the act. If as you say he is ethical then he should step down. Anything less than that would cast doubts on his motivation.

    • ” The allegations against Morrow are serious, very serious”

      And they are just that…allegations, not facts. Don’t sink into the ooze that was Turnbull and Murdoch by confusing those two things. My guess is that Mike Quigley would be the first to agree…

      • Yes and because of this he should step aside or step down which is normal practice in business or government affairs particularly as the company has already been fined.

        • Forcing someone to step aside in a business because he is merely accused and not proven to be guilty of something is anathema to our societal principals (and is just plain wrong)…unless the defense of that accusation causes the person to be so preoccupied as to become unable to function in their role, and I don’t see that happening here.

          • Nonsense. Take a look at ICAC and people standing aside, take a look at a number of court actions where people have stood aside, goodness even in a sport they stand aside. This is an issue of safety and of alleged misconduct and on that alone you would expect him to step down.

          • “Take a look at ICAC and people standing aside”
            Politicians…Fighting the rumors leaves little time for anything else for them.

            ” This is an issue of safety and of alleged misconduct and on that alone you would expect him to step down”

            I can see you’ve never heard of the US politician Joseph McCarthy…history is replete with examples of these evil deeds. Forcing a person to stand down based on innuendos and allegations is the purest kind of evil.

        • “Yes and because of this he should step aside or step down which is normal practice in business or government affairs particularly as the company has already been fined.”

          Actually, it’s not that common in Australia for execs to stand aside, most times they don’t even get a slap on the wrist for even serious fraud (unless they are from a very small company).

          ASIC is a joke…they hardly touch the top end of town…

  10. Nothing against Morrow here, but I see this as another justification to rip into Turnbull for his blatant double standards.

  11. I disagree Renai. Quigley was exonerated of any wrongdoing long before he was ever considered for the nbnco job. Morrow is the subject of current investigation and legal, and this affects his ability to do his job. He should be stood down pending the outcome of the case.

    • “Morrow is the subject of current investigation and legal, and this affects his ability to do his job”

      Only Morrow can decide that…and Morrow is also exonerated until the charges are proved. Guilty until proven innocent is just the basis of the dark side.

      • Morrow will have to attend hearings and give lengthy depositions. That makes his position untenable.

        • “Morrow will have to attend hearings and give lengthy depositions”

          Probably only one or two at most (if at all)…but as i said, that is a question for Morrow.

          If you were accused of something that you had to front court on (say a drugs charge because someone at a party you attended had drugs), would you be forced to quit your job and stop all other activity until you were cleared? Isn’t the lawyer supposed to handle most of that? What if you didn’t even know the person who had the drugs?

          • If I was the subject of such an action, I wouldn’t have got the job in the first place.

          • And that is a very sad comment…when gossip rules your employment, and “innocent until proven guilty” is thrown away, then society has degenerated far too much. There needs to remain men (and women) of honour that keep this from happening, or what’s the point? All that is required for evil to flourish is that good men do nothing…

          • It has nothing to do with innocence or guilt, it is to do with fitness to hold his position. On your thinking no-one would be held in custody before a verdict in a trial. In Morrows case there is both a civil action and an FBI indictment.

          • Well thats true. Standing down does not indicate he is guilty of anything – it is just correct corporate governance. The courts will decide whether he is innocent or guilty and the side effect of all of this is that Morrow is fast losing credibility in the NBN workforce. The best thing he can do is step aside.

          • “It has nothing to do with innocence or guilt, it is to do with fitness to hold his position”

            So your theory is that a person’s “fitness” depends on whether there are unfounded rumours being spread about them. That theory would seem to me to give Rupert Murdoch the power of life and death over most of the world, and that this would be unchangeable according to our society…I just don’t buy it.

            Morrow isn’t losing an ounce of credibility in the NBN workforce…they really don’t care one way or the other I can assure you.

          • His roadshows this week in the NBN have been a fiasco – the smooth talking is being seen for what it is – smooth talking. There is now quite open discussion around him and while ever he remains in his position with this hanging over his head he will not be able to have a united work force.

          • “His roadshows this week in the NBN have been a fiasco”

            Now that is an acceptable reason to call for his head, but to do so because of unproved allegations is immoral and unacceptable.

  12. When Conroy was question Bill Morrow last night, Morrow/Turnbull might have known that in advance, and decided to play the usual tactic of “will not answer, due to the court case”.

    Morrow is acting like senior figures from the NSW Party, in that “I do not recall” fiasco at ICAC.

    I suggest to you that Renai, as Bill Morrow is being paid by our tax payer money, we should expect better answers, and more detailed answers than we got last night with Bill Morrow.

    If we do not, then he should be stand aside, and do not get paid while the case in the USA is under way.

    I do not want our Government to take part in anyone that we hire, that has a checked past in regarding deaths due to safety, and remember, the Coalition Party are king when it is coming towards lack of safety.

    I think it’s highly critical of you Renai, to take this approach, after the character assassination of not only Mike Quigley, but also former Prime Minister [Kevin Rudd] at the Royal Commission.

    The political witch hunts, as you call them, are just that.

    Just this week, we hear that an electrician at the lodge has been in contact with Asbestos, if this was Labor, it would have been all over the news.

    It’s fine to draw a line, but please, it’s about time we pay back with Coalition Party’s old dirty tricks so they cannot use them again.

    • Morrow will be hoping that the US court case meanders along, what will be interesting is how quickly the FBI take to trial the indictment handed down last month by a Grand Jury of the 12 violations of the safety act between 2003 and 2010 which include the time Morrow was CEO. Disturbing in the charges are the words “willingly and knowingly”. So when Morrow tries to portray this issue as just unhappy shareholders he is conveniently side stepping that issue of the FBI. If this continues the way it is his running of the NBN will be even more compromised than it now is .

    • “as Bill Morrow is being paid by our tax payer money, we should expect better answers, and more detailed answers than we got last night with Bill Morrow”

      About anything but the allegations I would agree…his business decisions deserve a good grilling!
      If it were me and I was being served up for something that I didn’t do (and until it has gone through the courts, Morrow didn’t do it), I would tell anyone who asked the same thing he is saying…wait for the court decision.

      • No , you conveniently side step the fact that the company that he led has already been fined for the breaches, the shareholder action is to reclaim the renumeration paid as well as damages. On the fines alone it means he is not fit to lead the NBN.

        • I don’t think “Trial by Media” is a good system. How about we wait for those charges to be proven in a court, then call for him to stand down?

  13. “you conveniently side step the fact that the company that he led has already been fined for the breaches”

    No side-stepping at all…the breaches didn’t occur on his watch. The action against him is that he should have been able to foresee the breaches and prevented them…a point which is debatable and not proven either way.

    BTW, if he is shown to have breached his fiduciary duty in a court, then he SHOULD be sacked…because it means he lied during his interview about being innocent of the charges. But we must let due process continue or we are no better than those we profess to despise.

    • I’ll leave to people to read the actual reports as what you say is not even close to factual. The shareholder action also utilises Californian state reports on the incidents. All reports and actions incorporate the time that Morrow worked for and ran PG&E.

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