news NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski wilfully and deliberately breached the Caretaker Conventions, ignoring official advice and publishing an inflammatory article defending the NBN during the Election Campaign, according to an investigation by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Several weeks ago, AFP officers raided the Melbourne office of former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, and the house of at least one Labor staffer working for Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare, in an apparent attempt to ascertain the identity of whistleblowers who have leaked a series of key documents from within the NBN company.
Following the raids, NBN chair Ziggy Switkowski published an extraordinary article in the Sydney Morning Herald accusing the NBN leakers of being thieves and not whistleblowers, and strongly defending the NBN company’s record under the Coalition.
Switkowski was appointed chair of the NBN company in October 2013, shortly after Malcolm Turnbull became Communications Minister.
In response to Switkowski’s article, Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke wrote to Martin Parkinson, the Secretary of Malcolm Turnbull’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, alleging Switkowski had breached the Caretaker Conventions which aim to ensure the public service — and government companies such as the NBN company — do not intervene in election campaigns.
This morning, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that an investigation by Parkinson’s office had found Switkowski had deliberately ignored strong advice from the Department of Communications and PM&C not to publish the article, after he had sent the two departments a draft prior to publication.
Delimiter has since sourced a copy of a letter sent by Parkinson to Burke on the matter. You can download the letter here in PDF format.
“I understand from my inquiries that NBN provided an advance draft of the article to the Department of Communications and the Arts,” wrote Parkinson.
“The Department of Communications and the Arts sought, and received, advice from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that the publication of the article in that form was not consistent with the established practices associated with the Caretaker Conventions.”
“I understand that view was strongly conveyed to NBN by the Department of Communications and the Arts, as was the view that the Conventions apply to the chairman, as well as to the CEO and the company.”
“Our understanding is that this view was passed to Dr Switkowski.”
In his response to Burke, Parkinson wrote that he had informed Switkowski directly that his article was not consistent with the Conventions. A copy of his letter was sent to both Switkowski and the Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts.
Parkinson wrote ultimately that some of the comments in Switkowski’s article were not consistent with the Caretaker conventions, but that the conventions did not have legal force.
It is not clear what the consequences will be for Switkowski and others within the NBN company who may have contributed to the article or helped get it approved.
Parkinson is the formal head of the Australian Public Service and responsible for arbitrating disputes over the Caretaker Conventions during the election campaign period.
The Caretaker Conventions are a set of rules which aim to ensure that the Government of the day does not gain an unfair advantage during an election campaign by using the resources of the APS in the campaign. They are available online here.
The news represents only the most recent time that the NBN company has been in hot water over appearing to take a partisan position regarding NBN policy.
In Senate hearings early last month, the NBN company revealed plans to hold a product launch just days before the upcoming Federal Election on 2 July. At the time, former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy directly cautioned the NBN company to keep the Caretaker Conventions in mind during the election campaign.
In April, NBN chief executive Bill Morrow made an extraordinary intervention into the pre-election national political debate over the National Broadband Network, warning Labor that it would need “a good explanation” to change the NBN model imposed by the Coalition.
Opinion/analysis to follow.
Image credit: NBN company