news The NBN company has revealed plans to hold a product launch just days before the upcoming Federal Election, in a move which has the potential to be interpreted as a breach of the Caretaker Conventions that govern the pre-election behaviour of public sector organisations.
In late night hearings last night, NBN chief executive Bill Morrow told a Budget Estimates hearing held by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications that the NBN company was planning to hold a “product launch” for its forthcoming HFC cable service “at the end of next month”.
The timing would place the NBN launch just days before the Federal Election, which is expected to be held on July 2.
The NBN company has bought the HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus and is planning to upgrade them and extend them, as a means of bringing high-speed broadband to around a third of Australian premises.
Last night Morrow told the Committee the NBN company was progressing its trial rollout area in Redcliffe, Queensland, and would begin construction in areas of Western Australia and South Australia.
The NBN company’s use of HFC cable represents a key policy difference between the two major sides of Australian politics.
Currently, Labor’s NBN policy focuses on a national Fibre to the Premises rollout, overbuilding all of the copper and HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus, although that policy may change during the election campaign.
The Coalition’s policy instead focuses on re-using and upgrading those networks, as part of its so-called ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ approach.
In this sense, a product launch for the NBN company’s HFC cable product during the election campaign could be seen as a strong advertisement for the Coalition’s NBN policy. NBN product launches are typically associated with a great deal of media coverage and analysis, as well as events in local neighbourhoods and even advertising campaigns.
The Federal Government has previously clarified that the NBN company, although it is a Government Business Enterprise and not a department or agency, is nethertheless covered by the Caretaker Conventions.
The Conventions (available online) place strict limitations on issues such as advertising campaigns carried out during the election campaign, using government premises to promote particular policies. They state, for example:
“Officials should not use agency resources or their positions to support particular issues or parties during the election campaign … Officials need to exercise judgment if they are scheduled to speak at public functions during the caretaker period.”
“In the case of controversial issues, officials should decline invitations to speak. In the case of non-controversial issues, officials may speak, but should explain that the Government is in caretaker mode and that they will limit their statements to factual issues and matters of administration. Officials should avoid publicly explaining or promoting policies during the caretaker period.”
Last night, the author of this article ventured an opinion on Twitter that the NBN company could be in breach of the Caretaker Conventions, based on the planned launch and other comments made by Morrow last night defending the Coalition’s MTM policy.
The NBN company’s executive general manager of corporate affairs, Karina Keisler, described the comment as “BS” and stated that the HFC product launch had been in the NBN company’s roadmap since January. In addition, Delimiter believes that the NBN company may hold a subdued HFC launch, considering the campaign.
— karina keisler (@karinakeisler) May 5, 2016
However, during last night’s session, former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy also directly cautioned the NBN company to keep the Caretaker Conventions in mind during the election campaign, stating that it was “probably safer” to “confiscate” Keisler’s mobile phone during the period.
The HFC product launch will not be the first time that the NBN company has been criticised for its behaviour during an election campaign. In 2010, for example, then-NBN chief executive Mike Quigley attracted heavy criticism for announcing during that year’s campaign that the NBN network was capable of 1Gbps speeds, and heavily criticising the Coalition’s own broadband policy.
And during the 2013 Election Campaign, the NBN company again came under fire for collaborating with the Labor Government to host a series of launches nationally for the company’s Fibre to the Premises service.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting