NBN chairman breached caretaker conventions, ignored advice from PM&C

An article by Ziggy Switkowski has breached the caretaker conventions, inquiries by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet have found.

The NBN is once again in the election spotlight, this time with the revelation that Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Martin Parkinson, has found an opinion piece by NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski to be in breach of the caretaker conventions that dictate how government departments and business are to behave during an election.

Published on May 28, the article said documents seized during Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids earlier that month were stolen.

"When dozens of confidential company documents are stolen, this is theft," Switkowski wrote. "The process is a form of political rumourtrage -- the circulation of misinformation to diminish an enterprise for political gain.

"One rationalisation has appeared that this theft is the action of whistleblowers. No, it is not."

In a letter first reported today by Fairfax and sighted by ZDNet, Parkinson said to Shadow Minister for Finance and Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, that the NBN had sought advice on the column in question and was told it was "not consistent with the established practices" of the caretaker conventions.

"I understand from my inquiries that NBN provided an advance draft of the article to the Department of Communications and the Arts," Parkinson wrote.

"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."

Parkinson noted though that the conventions do not have legal force, and PM&C cannot enforce compliance.

"We provide information and advice to departments and agencies, but responsibility for observing the conventions ultimately rests with the heads of the relevant bodies," Parkinson said.

"I can however assure you that the maintenance of the apolitical and impartial nature of the public service is a matter of the highest priority for me as head of the public service."

The documents seized by AFP durings its raids on the office of former Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of a Labor staffer are currently with the Senate clerk, and await the next sitting of the upper house to determine whether Labor's claim of parliamentary privilege on the documents applies.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday called for the politicisation of the National Broadband Network to end, following Labor's announcement pledging to add up to 2 million premises to the fibre-to-the-premises footprint, as well as retain the use of HFC networks.

"What Labor's talking about now are changes to the project which will disrupt it and add many billions of dollars to the cost, and we can't afford that. We can't afford any more politicking with this," Turnbull said.

The company responsible for deploying the National Broadband Network across Australia has defended the actions of its chairman.

"The Caretaker Guidelines state that: '[government companies] ... should observe the conventions and practices unless to do so would conflict with their legal obligations or compelling organisational requirements'", an NBN spokesperson said.

"Inaccurate comments that accuse the company of deliberately misleading, deliberately concealing, and then persecuting innocent whistleblowers have a tremendously corrosive effect on morale and jeopardise the great gains made over the last few years. The opinion piece addressed misleading claims to restore the trust of its 5,000 employees.

"Any accusation that the company's staff, management, its board and (by implication) its shareholder departments have conspired to keep large cost increases secret from the Australian people is not only plainly and demonstrably false, but is a serious accusation in light of the Corporations act (for example section 184).

"This is obviously not acceptable and the opinion piece addressed the allegations in a manner commensurate with the mode in which they were made; that is, publicly in the national media."

Updated 12.45pm AEST June 15 2016: Added comments from NBN.