Grey ghost Quigley still on the leash

Australia's newest telco chief's first media briefing was uneventful — even bland — thanks to him being trotted out on the day of the biggest bang in telecommunications since Sol Trujillo's departure from Telstra.

commentary The media debut of Australia's newest telco chief yesterday was uneventful — even bland — thanks to him being trotted out on the day of the biggest bang in telecommunications since Sol Trujillo's departure from Telstra.

Mike Quigley

Mike Quigley
(Credit: Alcatel-Lucent)

Mike Quigley, the $2 million grey ghost of the Australian telecommunications industry, after two months revealed himself to be typical of high-profile Australian executives: direct and measured. But he is yet to display strong leader authority typical of an Australian telco chief or a Russian president.

As would be expected of a man with his experience, Quigley handled the media well, but the NBN Co chief had every reason to be calm. The spotlight, which should have been trained on him, was instead on Canberra as Australia bore witness to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy laying his golden egg.

And while Conroy dropped his egg on Telstra, Quigley was in sunny Queensland, in the bosom of telecommunications industry group, the Communications Alliance. Telstra watched Conroy dangle highly prized spectrum allocation before it, and Quigley issued a breezy statement: "We will be, if we believe it's necessary, negotiating satellite and spectrum slots for the 10 per cent of folks not covered by fibre."

Quigley, of course, is probably the only chief executive in Australia that can openly (and happily) admit that his job is to "implement what the government's policies are" — given Tuesday's bomb, Thodey's future may follow a similar path.

Despite Quigley's candidness about all things logistical and technical, which some have since praised him for, something or someone was still preventing him from commenting on the bigger picture that was unfolding.

By having Quigley address media from Queensland, the truth was concealed that, despite its markings, the NBN Co is not a real company yet. Yes, it has a team of high profile executives, Quigley, however, lacked a feature common to all but David Thodey amongst the band of chiefs that make up Australian telecommunications — Michael Malone, Sol Trujillo, Paul O'Sullivan, Ravi Bahtia etc. None of them shy away from delivering commentary on the politics of the sector.

But not Quigley. Not yet anyway.

Some effort was made by Quigley to emphasise the "arm's length" distance between NBN Co and the government; and to prove it, when predictably asked the first question of the day by a journalist about Telstra's structural separation, he said: "I should tell you I have been in Brisbane here, so I haven't read, uh, exactly what Senator Conroy has said."

The journalist who had asked the question, the Australian Financial Review's Julian Bajkowski, quickly clarified: "He's proposed to structurally separate Telstra."

"Yeah, I understand," Quigley retorted. "I got the headlines. But I think frankly it's not appropriate for me to comment on government policy. And I certainly don't want to provide a running commentary until I have had time to digest the legislation in some detail."

Still, Quigley was informed enough on the legislation to be "optimistic" that, as Conroy was saying earlier that day (and which has been echoing ever since), "there is some opportunity for us to come to a win-win outcome".

What should have been a test of Quigley's ability to handle scrutiny, ended up a marsh-mellow event, which was no doubt planned to occur that way by Conroy. Quigley's leash was lengthened, but he's still on Conroy's tether.