Thin-skinned NBN succeeds in throwing spotlight on Turnbull decisions

For a company that accepts criticism with all the grace of a steel hammer hit right between the eyes, the NBN has found itself, and by extension Malcolm Turnbull, in the spotlight thanks to its own decisions.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The National Broadband Network (NBN) company found itself in a rare position over the weekend: Front and centre of an election campaign, with conspiracy theories, claims, and counterclaims running every which way.

Labor is in the midst of a drive to determine who knew what and when, with Communications Minister Mitch Fifield confessing on Saturday that while he was aware of the investigation of leaked confidential NBN documents by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), he did not tell other ministers or his prime minister.

In this whole saga, it is best to remember Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

That goes for the initial referral by NBN senior management, the AFP conducting a raid in the middle of a federal election campaign, NBN's security investigations manager taking photographs of documents and passing them on to fellow NBN workers, and the government's attempts to hose down the issue.

Clive Palmer claimed over the weekend that Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had previously asked him to use his Palmer United Party votes in the Senate to remove former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy from the Senate Select Committee examining the NBN.

"Turnbull offered to appoint me chairman of a Parliamentary Joint Committee for NBN. Turnbull was worried about the senate committee questioning the chief executive of the NBN," Palmer said.

"I think he was worried the Truth [sic] would come out about NBN, he wanted me [to] shut it down. He said he wanted to get Conroy. I refused. I have seen the Liberals direct police before. Wink Wink. Nudge Nudge. Say no more promotion on the way."

On Sunday morning, in response to Palmer's accusations, Finance Minister and NBN shareholder minister Mathias Cormann claimed on ABC Insiders that there is no political sensitivity around the broadband rollout, and that it is much more transparent than before.

"They are reporting on a weekly basis on the progress that they're making, and of course, you know, we inherited a project in very bad shape from Labor and we are now making it a reality and we're doing it according to our plans," Cormann said.

"Those plans are out in the public domain, and NBN reports regularly and openly and transparently on their performance."

The targets that Cormann claims NBN is hitting are significantly reduced from those when Turnbull gained responsibility for the NBN after the 2013 election.

When you look at the state of the NBN in 2016, it is far removed from the universal minimum of 25Mbps to all premises by the end of the first term of the Coalition government.

The extent to which the project has fallen behind what the electorate was sold three years ago is thus of public interest.

NBN is not a private enterprise; it is a government-owned de facto monopoly business. The country and its citizens own its equity, not the market.

For anyone to claim that the public should not know that the rollout is slower than expected with rising costs, that the company is looking at cheaper technologies to bring costs down, and that over three dozen fibre-to-the-node areas are behind schedule is to take the public for mugs.

It is disingenuous to claim, as Cormann has, that NBN throwing a bunch of numbers over the wall each week is transparency. The weekly rollout figures are headline numbers at best -- they do not detail which fibre technology is being used, and they bundle fibre-to-the-premises, fibre-to-the-node, and fibre-to-the-basement into one number, with geographical breakdown limited to states and territories.

For the past three years, NBN has covered as much information as it can in its now-infamous "commercial-in-confidence" phrase. It has built a castle of secrecy around the rollout, and expects to gain plaudits for a PDF spreadsheet export and notification of when particular suburbs are switched on.

We are not talking about industrial espionage theft; this is a case of a whistleblower making information public through a senator in a country with an appalling lack of protection for such acts.

It goes to the heart of the decision making by the current prime minister, who is trying to convince the electorate that he is the best person to steer the good ship Australia.

"This is about the ongoing theft of intellectual property from a business in which the Australian taxpayers have billions of dollars invested, which was causing harm to that business," Cormann said.

While the level of harm to a government-backed entity -- which will continue its rollout regardless -- caused by knowledge of delays and confirmation of information long suspected is questionable, it does have the potential to be much more damaging for Turnbull.

If ever there was a case of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, it is with Turnbull's handling of the NBN.

After one term of Coalition stewardship, the takeaway lesson is that it takes time to change course with a large infrastructure project like the NBN, and the reality does not measure up to the promise made in opposition.

The changes and maths used by Turnbull in 2013 were all based on opportunity costs, and being able to switch the technologies used in a 12-month window. Each and every day, those calculations appear to be increasingly wrong, yet here we are with Turnbull trying to convince the electorate that we can switch our economy to one based on innovations, agility, and startup culture.

With a switch on the nation's largest infrastructure project going awry, the question should be raised as to why Australia should trust Turnbull to have a second go at a switch-up with the nation itself.

The Coalition was doing a good job of keeping these issues out of the public spotlight, but thanks to NBN deciding to go directly for the nuclear option in December last year and call in the feds, it is now squarely back on the agenda.

To have an election that focuses on the decision making and risk taking of the prime minister rather than the gaffe of the day is a welcome one.

And in the words of the company responsible for the rollout of the National Broadband Network across Australia: Bring it on.

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