Will Turnbull use an NBN Co boardroom coup to manipulate Telstra?

It's clear that Malcolm Turnbull wouldn't keep Mike Quigley around for long if he could help it — but would a victorious Coalition dangle NBN Co executive positions to get Telstra to help make FttN's numbers work?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

"In truth, I'd rather talk about something other than the NBN this morning," Malcolm Turnbull said at the start of his address to this week's CommsDay Melbourne Congress industry forum.

Malcolm Turnbull speaking at CommsDay 2012
Malcolm Turnbull speaking at CommsDay 2012. (Credit: David Braue/ZDNet)

Who can blame him? When he last spoke (at the 2010 event) Turnbull had just been appointed as shadow communications minister. His speech was full of energy, determined to mount a fierce and effective offense against Labor's NBN, and filled with the near-religious zeal of someone who — outwardly, at least — truly believed he could halt Labor's NBN plans.

It didn't happen, of course — and while he has been extremely successful in keeping the rhetorical NBN debate alive, the actual victories of Turnbull's tenure could be counted on one hand. Hence a more subdued CommsDay speech this year, in which Turnbull had clearly accepted that the NBN, for all its faults, was a reality, and that he would probably only be able to tweak around the edges if the Coalition is appointed.

One of the tweaks that's clearly high on his list is the directorship of NBN Co. Turnbull's antagonism towards NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley has been brewing for some time, typically emerging only during heated Estimates sessions. A while back, Quigley invited Turnbull to a technical tête-à-tête, after which the shadow minister seemed to have changed his tune a bit.

The past week, however, has seen Turnbull tighten his grip on his scythe. His technical and financial arguments at an impasse — because he has refused to even hint at a price tag for his FttN policy, there is no way to move that part of the debate forward — Turnbull's banner headline is now that Mike Quigley is unfit to be running a telco, with his inexperience driving the "gold-plating" of the NBN.

This, he claims, is because Quigley's professional career was spent at Alcatel-Lucent, a supplier of telecoms equipment, rather than an actual operator of telecoms gear (one could point out that Alcatel-Lucent supplies most of the world's largest telcos, but that's an entirely different discussion).

There is much to read from this.

The first is that — Joe Hockey's previous noncommittal statements aside — Quigley's future in a Coalition-led NBN Co would likely be limited.

Whether he would jump or be pushed is not yet clear, but Turnbull would have no interest in maintaining a CEO with whom he has had a historically adversarial relationship. Given the tone that Turnbull has given their relationship in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that Quigley would want to stay either.

If Quigley's departure is a given, the obvious following question is: who will take his place? If you connect the dots, it seems the answer is becoming increasingly clear.

Turnbull's decision to attack Quigley based on his lack of telco operational experience confirms that he would prefer a candidate from an established telco, who has both management and operational experience.

This leaves Telstra and Optus — and that leaves two obvious candidates.

The first is Paul Fletcher, the ex-Optus executive who has already demonstrated his interest in wading into the NBN debate, and would probably relish the opportunity to take over NBN Co. But there's that pesky political career to consider, so he's probably long odds to actually take that position.

That leaves David Thodey — an effective and respected industry leader, who has guided the transformation of our largest telco in very complex times. Few would disagree with the assertion that Thodey has the experience, the people skills, and the technical knowledge to help the NBN turn the very sharp corner around which Turnbull wants to guide it.

Skills aside, Thodey's biggest appeal to Turnbull would come from the simple fact that he comes from Telstra. This is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to Turnbull's plan is the nagging question of how the government can seize control of Telstra's copper loop to deliver its FttN policy.

A leasing arrangement would, no doubt, come at such a great expense that it would blow out the cost of the FttN project far more than Turnbull could afford. Turnbull regularly refers to the copper, and to the HFC networks of Telstra and Optus, as though he owns them and has unfettered access to them — to actually integrate them into the NBN, however, would be commercially complex.

But what if Turnbull offered the leadership of NBN Co as an inducement to get favourable terms from Telstra? Certainly, having a friendly face as the head of NBN Co would help the Coalition's negotiations around ownership of Telstra's copper and HFC networks?

It's entirely possible, though it probably wouldn't be so overt. Perhaps the need to avoid perceived smarminess would rule out Thodey — which would instead qualify one of his senior operational executives, such as Telstra Wholesale Group Managing Director Stuart Lee or COO Brendon Riley.

Whoever ends up as NBN Co CEO, Turnbull would likely proceed to engineer a coup within the company's management board.

We already know that Turnbull doesn't think much of the current members; he took a swipe at nearly every one of them in this week's CommsDay speech, and would seem to have no trouble filling the roles with ex-industry executives who have the operational telco expertise that Turnbull seems to want.

The actual mechanics of this coup won't become apparent until after next year's election, but I'd say that it's now inevitable. Yet, while he may be able to politically decapitate the company, Turnbull will also need to account for the not insignificant disruptions caused by such a major cultural change within NBN Co.

You can't change technical direction overnight, and you can't simply expect employees, who have spent years working on particular projects, to immediately change direction based on political whim.

Any manager in the corporate world knows how hard this is, and in a company of NBN Co's size and scale, the transition would be exhaustive — and exhausting.

Change takes money, effort, and time — and without a major investment in managing the cultural change of a Quigley-free NBN Co, it won't matter one bit what alternative technical strategy Turnbull mandates. Or what political benefits he obtains because of it.

What do you think? Will the Coalition depose Mike Quigley? Would an ex-Telstra appointee help Turnbull overcome the network-ownership problems with his FttN plan? Or would he keep Quigley onboard, to ensure planning continuity and a faster change of direction?

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