NBN Co thumbscrews applied, Turnbull begins turning

Summary:Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has wasted no time in clearing out Labor's NBN Co legacy and installing sympathetic staff to deliver his FttN vision. But as he puts a broom through our most concentrated repository of NBN knowledge, has Turnbull thrown the baby out with the bath water?

It was only a year ago that new Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull began an address to Australia's telecommunications industry by saying that he would "rather talk about something other than the NBN ".

Now that he's the minister, however, he certainly won't be talking about anything else for some time. As his hatchet-gang rides into town, revelations that he was responsible for the mass resignations of NBN Co's board show that he's so determined to get results quickly that he's not afraid of depleting the brains trust that could have helped his transition.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:16XX_Daumenschraube_anagoria.JPG
Malcolm Turnbull has wasted no time applying pressure to deliver his FttN vision — but will it work? Thumbscrew image: CC BY-SA 3.0 Anagoria

The Coalition's antipathy towards the existing NBN Co board — and, indeed, its entire staff — is well documented. Recall Andrew Robb's comments, in the leadup to the 2010 election, about NBN Co's "talentless" staff and claims that the company was "the usual stodgy, massive, bureaucratic, government-owned monopoly".

Those aren't exactly the kind of words that will endear an incoming Coalition government with the NBN Co crew, and they're a legacy that Turnbull will have to face down as he disposes of staff he sees as vestigial remnants of the bygone Labor era.

While his swift action may have put the whole of NBN Co on notice to up their game, it's also going to create organisational problems: it would be a foolish NBN staffer who has not been polishing up their CVs in recent months, and given the Coalition's government-reduction strategy it's almost certain that he will soon be axing hundreds of the very people that know the most about what's actually going on within the walls of NBN Co.

Turnbull has already asked for the company's help in meeting his timeline: "NBN Co should meet requests from our Departments for information as quickly as possible," he wrote in the new government's first Letter of Government Expectations to NBN Co.

Given that his policy will likely not only behead but eviscerate NBN Co's talent pool, I'd say protests, such as a staff-driven NBN Co go-slow movement, are entirely possible — if only to slow the loss of NBN Co expertise.

While his swift action may have put the whole of NBN Co on notice to up their game, it's also going to create organisational problems: it would be a foolish NBN staffer who has not been polishing up their CVs in recent months....Given that [Turnbull's] policy will likely not only behead but eviscerate NBN Co's talent pool, a staff-driven NBN Co go-slow movement is entirely possible. 

That loss, as we're now seeing, begins at the board level. However, given Turnbull's antipathy toward the board over their earlier moves to promote their positions, and industry rumours that board probity and confidentiality had been less than ideal, it was unlikely that the members ever had a chance.

The boardroom coup — which, for what it's worth, I predicted  a year ago – is likely to be just the beginning as Turnbull moves to rearchitect the board, seizing the reins at NBN Co and jumping into bed with Telstra.

It became extremely clear in the leadup to the election that Turnbull had already had informal talks  with Telstra to ensure it would play ball in transitioning to FttN; Turnbull's inexplicable confidence  was not the mark of a man who felt he had anything to worry about. However, Turnbull now faces the very real challenge of ensuring that he doesn't give too much control to Telstra, too soon.

Appointing ex-Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski makes sense, since Switkowski has also previously headed Optus and is better informed than probably anybody else about how to overcome organisational inertia and get results at Australia's telecoms giants.

But that doesn't mean he will be any better at extracting additional concessions out of current Telstra CEO David Thodey — even though it does appear Thodey is warming  to Turnbull's overtures — most likely because of the promise of massive construction contracts in a classic scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours scenario that could put billions more into Telstra's coffers.

Whatever revelations come scurrying out of NBN Co under the heat of Turnbull's blowtorch – the days until November 17, when the Abbott government will be 60 days old and Turnbull's first NBN Co review will be due, are sure to be interesting….any failure to meet his self-imposed deadlines can only be read as a failure of transition management.

To his credit, Turnbull has followed through with some of his long-stated (and entirely correct ) demands for rollout transparency, using the Letter of Government Expectations to direct NBN Co to publish weekly rollout figures.

This will either prove him horribly wrong or, as is likely the case, entirely correct about the real progress of the rollout — and, more pertinently, the chances that it will be able to continue gaining momentum to read the sort of rollout speeds necessary for it to come anywhere near fulfilling its rollout speeds.

Whatever revelations come scurrying out of NBN Co under the heat of Turnbull's blowtorch – and whatever staffers follow them in the inevitable executive resignations and staff sackings to come — the days until November 17*, when the Abbott government will be 60 days old and Turnbull's first NBN Co review will be due, are sure to be interesting.

Ditto December 27, which will mark 100 days of Abbott government — and the due date for the revised NBN Co business plan that Abbott promised.

Turnbull has set the terms of his first big challenge as Communications Minister, and the clock is ticking. Given his ferocious indictment of NBN Co management over the past three years and his furious dispatching of Labor's managerial legacy, any failure to meet his self-imposed deadlines can only be read as a failure of transition management — and a sign that the outcomes Turnbull wants simply cannot be achieved unilaterally, as he believes.

What do you think? Should Turnbull have kept the previous board to draw on their capabilities? Can a Switkowski-led team spring into action to rework the NBN to Turnbull's accelerated timetable? Or can Turnbull expect an NBN Co staff go-slow in retaliation for his years of attacks on them? 

* Technically, Turnbull promised on September 12 that the strategic review would be complete "within the next 60 days"; if you take him to this word, the deadline is November 11. On that point, if you hold him to earlier proclamations the review would be complete 60 days from the election, the review has until November 6. But I am prepared to give him until the actual beginning of the Abbott government to start the clock. Others will not be so generous.

EDIT: Clarified method of calculating review deadlines.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government : AU, IT Policies, Networking, Telcos, Telstra

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

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