Switkowski: 'I did not breach caretaker conventions' with NBN opinion piece

The opinion piece on the AFP raids was witnessed by NBN's board prior to publication, with NBN chair Switkowski holding firm that he did not breach caretaker conventions.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

National Broadband Network (NBN) chair Ziggy Switkowski believes that he did not breach caretaker conventions by publishing an opinion piece on the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids in the lead-up to the federal election, despite a decision to the contrary by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).

Speaking during Senate Estimates on Friday morning, Switkowski also revealed that the opinion piece went through NBN CEO Bill Morrow, the entirety of the NBN board, the Department of Communications, and PM&C before Switkowski had it published in the media.

Switkowski was accused of breaching caretaker conventions by writing an opinion piece in May, and publishing it despite receiving advice from PM&C that it would amount to a breach.

"I've never viewed this as advice about my breaching the caretaker convention. It was advice about how the caretaker convention might be interpreted in the light of my opinion piece," Switkowski said in response to a question from Senator Sam Dastyari.

"I don't believe I breached the caretaker convention.

"If there was a conflict, it was with the spirit of the caretaker convention. I understood that might be the case."

Switkowski said he did not personally speak with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield or his chief of staff, or either government department prior to its publication -- but said other NBN staff members had "communicated the content of the opinion piece to the department", although the word "liaising" "may be overstating it".

"It was not a matter that went formally to the board that said 'please approve'; that's not the way the board operates. But the board was aware of my intention to write it, was supportive, and did see the draft," Switkowski said.

The NBN chair said he also sought feedback from NBN's legal department on the content of the opinion piece, but not about its inconsistency with the caretaker conventions.

Switkowski on Friday said he used the opinion piece as a vehicle for correcting "misinformation" on the raids -- although he claimed that he has never read the leaked documents, and has "no idea" of the detail contained within them, having only read the media reports on the matter -- which he said gave him "justification" to go ahead with publishing the piece despite advice from PM&C.

"I noted my concern about the amount of misinformation that was being reported and repeated in the press, and I thought it was time to correct it," he explained.

"An opinion piece published in the press was the way to go."

According to Switkowski's timeline, the AFP raids took place on May 19 and 20; the chair had a phone call with Morrow on May 22 on the possibility of making a "rebuttal" to the "very negative" media commentary through an opinion piece; a meeting with the NBN board on the matter took place on May 23; the opinion piece was finalised on May 26; the article was floated between NBN and the Department of Communications on May 27; the department gave Switkowski their views on May 28; and then the chair decided to submit the opinion piece regardless, which was published on May 29.

Refuting Senator Dastyari's accusation that the evidence and timeline presented on Friday was "completely different" to what NBN had said during the previous Senate Estimates hearing, Morrow said he never denied holding a board meeting on the matter prior to publication of the piece, simply saying "the question wasn't asked" previously.

Switkowski's opinion piece stated that documents seized during the AFP raids had been stolen from NBN.

"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."

Secretary of PM&C Martin Parkinson found Switkowski's article to be "not consistent with the established practices" of the conventions that dictate how government departments and business are to behave during an election, and also ignored advice from the Department of Communications.

"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."

In July, former Communications Minister and Senator Stephen Conroy called for the resignation of both Switkowski and Fifield, saying that the AFP raids on his office and the home of one of his staffers were "illegal", as NBN is not a Commonwealth officer and therefore cannot make referrals to the federal police.

"I've written to the [Australian] Federal Police on Friday, asking them to end their ludicrous investigation into links from the NBN on the basis of legal advice that says NBN Co have incorrectly called the police in," Conroy said in July.

"They are not Commonwealth officers, and I'm seeking and demanding an end to the investigation and an apology from Ziggy Switkowski, an apology from Mitch Fifield who's overseen this, and Ziggy Switkowski resign over it."

However, Fifield in September announced the reappointment of Switkowski as chair for another three years.

"Dr Switkowski, one of Australia's most distinguished telecommunications executives, has done an outstanding job as chair of the NBN board," Fifield said at the time.

"Along with Bill Morrow and the executive team, the board has transformed the company and achieved a remarkable rate of growth in the rollout."

Switkowski was originally appointed as NBN chair three years ago, when the Coalition came into power at the end of 2013, after serving as CEO of both Telstra and Optus previously.

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