news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to have called in National Broadband Network contractor Fulton Hogan to assist with a political photo opportunity associated with the by-election campaign in the Canning electorate in South-East Perth and Mandurah.
The seat of Canning has been held since 2001 by long-standing Liberal MP Don Randall. However, Randall unfortunately passed away in an untimely manner in mid-July, leaving the seat open. A by-election has been called for 19 September.
Minister Turnbull is currently on a campaigning trip in Mandurah associated with the by-election campaign. The Minister has made a number of posts on Twitter over the past several days detailing his plans to support Canning Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie.
On Sunday night, for instance, the Minister held a forum with Hastie at Byford Tavern, and this morning the pair caught a train together from Esplanade Station in Perth to head south to Mandurah, where Minister Turnbull attended a forum at the Pinjarra Recreation Club to discuss “telecom, broadband issues”.
None of these activities would be regarded as unusual in the context of an election campaign — senior political figures often jet in for several days to help out a local candidate.
However, it also appears as though Minister Turnbull has roped in a key local NBN contractor to assist with the campaign.
Parts of Mandurah are fortunate enough to have been included in the early stage rollout of the National Broadband Network, with the NBN company’s coverage map showing that a Fibre to the Premises rollout covers much of the district close to the coast. Other sections to the north, east and south of that coverage area are currently being built-out.
One of the main contractors working on the NBN in Western Australia is Fulton Hogan. The company had initially held a contract to build NBN infrastructure in South Australia. However, several months ago the NBN company named Fulton Hogan as one of its new batch of construction firms.
In a separate media release, Fulton Hogan said it had won a contract to deploy local and distribution fibre network inrastructure in four locations across the Perth metropolitan area.
In a post on Twitter this morning, Minister Turnbull noted that he was “With the team from Fulton Hogan rolling out the NBN in Mandurah”. He included the #AndrewHastie hashtag on his post.
It is not currently clear as to what extent the NBN contractor’s apparent role supporting the Liberal election campaign for Canning would be regarded as inappropriate.
During the 2013 Election Campaign, the NBN company issued a statement noting that, as a fully publicly-owned government business enterprise, it would be taking on most aspects of the Caretaker Conventions which guide the behaviour of the public service during the pre-election campaigning period.
The Caretaker Conventions (available online in full) do not apply during a by-election campaign, and it is not clear to what extent they would affect the behaviour of non-government organisations such as Fulton Hogan.
However, the Caretaker Conventions do contain provisions that would affect the NBN company itself in the kind of event Minister Turnbull held this morning. For example, they state that officials should not agency resources or their positions to support particular issues or parties during an election campaign. In addition, the Conventions would set fairly strict limitations on invitations to speak on controversial issues.
Neither Matt Keogh, the Labor candidate, nor Vanessa Rauland, the Greens candidate, appear to have publucly raised the issue of the NBN in the Canning campaign.
Delimiter has contacted the office of Minister Turnbull to invite comment on the appropriateness of NBN contractors being involved in the Canning by-election. Delimiter has also invited the Minister to comment on whether other candidates were invited to attend the NBN event with Andrew Hastie.
The NBN company has a history of involvement in activity during previous election campaigns which have led to questions regarding its impartiality. For example, the company held a substantial number of launch events during the 2013 campaign. The company invited both Government and Opposition spokespeople to the events, but they were typically held to detail new local Fibre to the Premises infrastructure, which was a feature of the Labor NBN policy but not the Coalition’s rival policy.
In addition, during the 2010 Election Campaign, former NBN chief executive Mike Quigley strongly attacked the Coalition’s broadband policy just days before the Federal Election.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) August 31, 2015
I don’t believe the Caretaker Conventions apply to by-elections, and I don’t believe a huge amount of resources have been diverted here from the NBN company to help Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Fulton Hogan’s involvement in the Canning by-election isn’t a huge, earth-shaking deal.
However, it does raise questions. Minister Turnbull went to Canning this week for the express purpose of campaigning with local Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie. And he did so at a site where the NBN company is deploying infrastructure, taking a campaign photo involving NBN contractor staff and Hastie. Will we see continued repeats of this kind of behaviour during the 2016 Federal Election campaign? We certainly did under Labor during the 2013 Election Campaign.
One wonders just how far the NBN company will hold itself back in 2016. It would have been relatively simple, one assumes, for the company to have kept its contractor staff out of any involvement in the Canning by-election.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull