Election rant 2: NBN Co wrath

Summary:They say you should love the sinner and hate the sin, but Shadow Minister for Finance and Debt Reduction Andrew Robb seemed to hate just about everybody as he fronted the media with Tony Smith to announce the Coalition's long-awaited broadband policy.

They say you should love the sinner and hate the sin, but Shadow Minister for Finance and Debt Reduction Andrew Robb seemed to hate just about everybody as he fronted the media with Tony Smith to announce the Coalition's long-awaited broadband policy.

Andrew Robb

Shadow Minister for Finance and Debt Reduction Andrew Robb is biting the "talentless" hands that will feed his party, before it has even been elected. (Credit: YouTube)

With a few acerbic, ill-considered comments he not only disparaged the careers and capabilities of the hundreds of people who are working hard to deliver the fibre NBN revolution, he also threatened to bring the Coalition's own broadband plan crashing down around his ears by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that may just come true.

Robb, you may recall, was the grumpy old Luddite who stood next to Smith in Toby Abbott's absence, arguing the Coalition's case for fiscal responsibility while ignoring questions about Abbott — and cutting off journalists when things got even a little bit heated, such as when one journalist mentioned the word "costings". Suddenly Tony Smith had to leave, Robb said, but both managed to stick around for many minutes' more worth of questions once the topic was changed. (The same thing happened when a journalist questioned the Coalition's reliance on the private sector to build its networks).

In an interesting turn, however, Robb, who also happens to chair the Liberal Party's Policy Development Committee, decided the press conference was an ideal time to launch a personal attack on NBN Co's team of hard-working engineers. Labelling the company "the usual stodgy, massive, bureaucratic, government-owned monopoly", he boldly proclaimed that the organisation was filled with "talentless" staff and would not attract "highly skilled, highly innovative, highly specialised talents ... these people value being part of an entrepreneurial creative industry and that is what we will seek to promote".

The mind boggles. Robb may have thought he was attacking a Labor party machine, but what he clearly had not considered was that he was actually taking on the same people his party will have to rely on to deliver the Coalition's own broadband vision. The party's own policy depends on it, right there in black and white (PDF): "By drawing on selected personnel and resources of the current NBN Co and telecommunications regulators such as ACMA and the ACCC ... it will take full advantage of the work done and expertise held by NBN Co ... its management will be required to prepare a new business plan for approval by the minister."

Robb seems to feel these technically minded types would not be attracted to building a world-class, nationwide fibre network ... but would stick around for an inevitable staff cull by the Liberals, followed by a mandate that they throw out their work to date and focus on building a significantly poorer, slower and less capable network. This is the equivalent of buying Google, firing half the staff and forcing them to write spam emails for a living.

Excuse me for a moment. Robb seems to feel these technically minded types would not be attracted to building a world-class, nationwide fibre network like they are already doing now, but that they would stick around for an inevitable staff cull by the Liberals, followed by a mandate that they throw out their work to date and focus on building a significantly poorer, slower and less capable network. This is the equivalent of buying Google, firing half the staff and forcing them to write spam emails for a living.

If Robb thought he was speaking sense, he should be ashamed of himself; he has let himself and his party sorely down by spelling out exactly the contempt with which he views all of them. Not only that, but if Robb had bothered to look beyond his own callous rhetoric, he would realise that NBN Co is currently home to pretty much the largest collection of telecommunications brains in the country.

I know this because I recently spent an inordinate amount of time learning about these people and their qualifications; the results are collated in our NBN Co files and do, if I may say so, make for interesting reading.

After all, the company is headed by a robust and rational Mike Quigley, who had a distinguished career at one of the world's largest telecommunications providers and took on the NBN Co appointment as an intellectual challenge more than out of any financial need. Steve Christian, head of network operations, ran Optus' networks business for years.

CTO Gary McLaren is a lawyer and engineer who headed the communications industry's engagement with NBN Co. CIO Claire Rawlins served as chief operating officer with major US telco Qwest. Jim Hassell, head of product development and sales director, ran major IT vendor Sun Microsystems for years. CFO Jean-Pascal Beaufret spent years managing France's entire tax system, for goodness' sake.

These are not lightweights by any sense of the word. In fact, NBN Co's senior executives have hundreds of years in senior positions at many of the world's leading telecommunications carriers and providers. These people know their technology, their regulation, their law more than just about anybody in the world — and I'd put my money on many of them against Robb in a financial battle of wits, too.

If Robb had bothered to look beyond his own callous rhetoric, he would realise that NBN Co is currently home to pretty much the largest collection of telecommunications brains in the country... Many of them interrupted perfectly excellent, rewarding careers to take up the challenge that NBN Co provided. Make no mistake about it: NBN Co is Australia's own Manhattan Project.

Even the NBN Co rank-and-file is mostly comprised of bright sparks — the people who have designed and run the fixed and mobile networks of Optus, Vodafone, Three and others over the past 20 years or so. Many of them interrupted perfectly excellent, rewarding careers to take up the challenge that NBN Co provided. Make no mistake about it: NBN Co is Australia's own Manhattan Project.

Robb's conclusion that these people are anything but "highly skilled, highly innovative, highly specialised talents" shows the depth of his ignorance — not only of NBN Co, but of his party's own policies. Given that he heads the committee that authors these policies, he should really resign from that position in disgrace; to front the media at the launch of a major policy, then show such utter disregard for the contents of that policy and the people it affects, is simply inexcusable.

He will not, of course, resign, but if this sort of angry diatribe indicates the Coalition's position towards NBN Co and reflects its communications philosophy, we cannot but question Robb's judgement and the fundamental premise of the party's policy.

We must also wonder exactly what would happen, should the Coalition win and show up at NBN Co's doorstep for a bout of team building. I cannot speak for Mike Quigley, of course, but if I were in his position, doing a job for free because I loved it, then being re-tasked to execute such a mind-bogglingly ordinary policy, I would be the first one out the door. I suspect he has better things to do than to waste his time building a retrograde, poorly-specified network with a shoestring budget and a derisive administrative philosophy that has already labelled its staff as incapable bludgers.

One suspects many others would also take a Coalition victory as their sign to find a more interesting challenge against which to apply themselves. This would certainly fulfil the Coalition's vision of a more streamlined NBN Co, but it would also ensure what I can only imagine would be a defeated culture of frustrated ex-innovators beaten down by a bureaucracy as stodgy and massive as anything Robb could have ever imagined.

This is the second in a series of election rants, one for each of the deadly sins and each of the seven days that are remaining until the election. The first was entitled "wireless greed". Renai LeMay plays the devil's advocate.

Topics: Government : AU

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.