commentary If you attended NBN Co chief executive officer Mike Quigley's landmark speech last week at Sydney's ritzy Westin Hotel, you would have walked away with the feeling that butter wouldn't melt in the NBN Co chief executive's mouth.
The night before, Quigley had personally called Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and delivered him a fantastic and unbelievable windfall: NBN Co's realisation that the upcoming National Broadband Network (NBN) could support 10 times the speeds that it had originally been planned for. Not only would the NBN be able to deliver 93 per cent of Australia's broadband at 1Gbps, instead of the 100Mbps initially planned, Quigley told Conroy, but it literally wouldn't cost a cent more!
Now if Quigley had chosen any other time to release this news, it would rightly be universally hailed as a fantastic announcement that would further demonstrate the strength of the business and technical case for building the multibillion-dollar NBN.
But last week wasn't just like any other week in the history of Australia's telecommunications industry.
Quigley chose to release his news to Conroy just nine days before Australia is due to head to the polls in the upcoming Federal Election, in which broadband is looming as a major policy differentiator between Labor and Liberal.
The NBN Co chief chose to release his news to Conroy just days after the Coalition published its fiscally responsible but technically questionable rival broadband policy.
And Quigley chose to release his news to Conroy just hours before the communications minister was scheduled to hold a major campaign event in Tasmania with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to formally launch the Tasmanian leg of the NBN.
It would be unbelievably naive to suggest that Quigley was ignorant of the potential political effect that his massive free kick to Labor would have during the closely contested political campaign, in which the difference between the two major parties' broadband policies could not be more stark.
Quigley's announcement gives Conroy and Gillard the ammunition to claim that the NBN will deliver speeds almost a hundred times faster than those of the Coalition's policy, which will guarantee just 12Mbps. Why couldn't the NBN Co chief wait to announce it on 22 August?
Quigley's disclosure was even more remarkable when you consider that it was likely a flagrant and blatant breach of the government's own Caretaker Conventions, which are intended to ensure that no major initiatives or decisions are undertaken by the government or associated entities after an election is called, because of the potential of a change in government and associated policy.
I quote from the government's Caretaker Conventions guidelines (PDF):
Governments avoid making major policy decisions during the caretaker period that are likely to commit an incoming government. Whether a particular policy decision qualifies as "major" is a matter for judgement. Relevant considerations include not only the significance of the decision in terms of policy and resources, but also whether the decision is a matter of contention between the government and opposition in the election campaign.
The document also states that government business enterprises like NBN Co (which is wholly owned by the government) should observe the Caretaker Conventions, unless to do so would conflict with their legal obligations or compelling organisational requirements.
Now, clearly the matter of whether the NBN will support 100Mbps or 1Gbps speeds is a weighty policy matter that the communications minister of the day must have a view on and be involved in deciding on.
It is not a simple technical matter as Quigley made it out to be last week; the entrance of consumer 1Gbps services into Australia's telecommunications market will have wide-ranging implications for the entire sector. And the upgrade represents a significant departure from Conroy's public statement that the NBN would support speeds of up to 100Mbps. Admittedly, it's a positive departure, but the upgrade does change government policy.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no doubt that NBN Co's decision relates to "a matter of contention" between Labor and the Coalition.
However, not only did Quigley likely break the Caretaker Conventions, he went further and implicitly criticised the Coalition's wireless and hybrid-fibre coaxial-based broadband policy itself. In his speech, Quigley did everything but directly say that the Coalition's policy was an atrocious waste of time and should be laughed off as a bad joke (which of course, sections of it are).
Now the question has to be asked: why did the normally apolitical Quigley break so dramatically with his tradition of keeping his head down and thrust NBN Co deeply into the political arena in the midst of a federal election focused on broadband?
David Braue has adroitly given us the reason in the second of his "seven deadly sins" rants on election technology policy, on Friday afternoon at ZDNet Australia.
It was revenge.
Not only has the Coalition promised to disband Quigley's precious NBN Co if it wins the election, it has done so in the most odious and offensive of ways, by stating baldly that Quigley's highly intelligent and capable bunch of engineers and network gurus are "talentless" and a "stodgy government bureaucracy".
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. As Braue noted in his article, Quigley himself is highly capable, and he has soaked up the best of the best to build NBN Co and ensured that it is literally the brains trust of Australia's telecommunications sector.
But there are very visible signs that Coalition finance spokesperson Andrew Robb's insults hit home at NBN Co in a very personal way.
There is no doubt right now that some NBN Co staff, maybe even Quigley himself, are seething with rage as they contemplate being laid off after 21 August and being forced to abandon their dream of building a glorious fibre future for Australia after just one year on the job — or even less, in some cases. And it must hurt particularly badly that it's a party led by a veritable Luddite that could deliver them to this fate.
However, there is one essential difference between Andrew Robb's "cheap shot" at the NBN Co and Quigley's amazingly partisan-free bandwidth gift to Labor.
As a politician campaigning in a federal election, Robb was fully entitled to make those comments in public. As a fiscal conservative, it is his duty to contemplate disbanding the big-spending National Broadband Network project in a time of national debt.
But as a quasi-public servant whose government business enterprise is a matter of highly contentious political debate during a closely fought federal election, Quigley is not entitled to either make major policy decisions or make political comments in public at this time. The fact that he did so is outrageous, and Quigley should rightly be worried about his future if the Coalition wins government, irrespective of if NBN Co was actually disbanded.
Quigley and his NBN Co team need to face a bitter truth: they are literally employees of the Federal Government, like workers at Australia Post, the Australian Government Solicitor and the Australian Rail Track Corporation. It is simply a reality that a change in government will bring a change in the direction of these corporations, and Australian public servants live daily with that problem during every election.
As Braue pointed out, NBN Co's ranks are filled with the cream of Australia's telecommunications sector. But as talented as Quigley and his team are, they are no longer private sector workers — they are part of the government.
And during an election, public servants had better keep their head down, unless they want it to be chopped off.
Renai LeMay is writing responses to David Braue's series of election rants, one for each of the deadly sins and each of the seven days that are remaining until the election. This piece responds to Braue's NBN Co wrath rant.