Opinion: How to oppose the NBN

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Opinion: How to oppose the NBN

Opposing everything is not effective opposition.

Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues need to lose the hype and bluster and start holding NBN Co and the Federal Government to account on the issues that matter.

He can start with transparency and procurement practices.

Turnbull’s version of holding the Government accountable has been – to date – to simply exude outrage about every aspect of the NBN at every turn. He exudes outrage well, in my opinion, but just like with Utegate, he is at risk of over-cooking it.

His latest attempt is talk of a Freedom of Information exemption for NBN Co. On this score he is ultimately just talking twaddle, because NBN Co has not been provided with any exemption.

The FoI legislation only applies to Departments and prescribed authorities, and the definition of prescribed authority excludes corporations. NBN Co is a corporation.

The Government hasn’t exempted NBN Co from anything. But nor did it take action to include FoI rules for NBN Co in the Bill introduced in November. There was no complaint about FoI from Turnbull when the bill was debated – it took an item in a newspaper to provoke this latest wave of outrage.

There was time for scrutiny of such issues – the coalition did have the Senate Select Committee on the NBN consider the exposure draft of this Bill. The committee’s report made no mention of the lack of FoI rules for NBN Co either.

How to oppose

Oppositions are usually expected to do one of two things. One is “to hold Government to account”, the second is to provide “an alternative Government.”

In recent years it has become standard practice that policy development and release only happens close to elections. So perhaps we should not be surprised that the coalition has a lot to complain about but little in the way of alternatives on offer. (That said, with the state of this Parliament – hanging by the thread of a loose alliance with independents – you’d think Abbott and co. might be doing more to convince everyone that they were already a viable alternative Government.)

But we can at least expect the Opposition to try to hold the Government to account at this stage of the political cycle.

The NBN has been with us now in policy terms since it was unveiled as Labor policy in 2006. Along the way it morphed from a public/private partnership to build fibre to the node into a wholly government-owned enterprise to build fibre to the premise.

Judging by reactions to Terry Cutler’s column, opinions are still divided on the NBN. 

You can find every variant of objection, from those who say we don’t need better broadband, to those who say we need it but should deliver it via different technologies, to those who say that we need it but it shouldn’t be built by Government. 

The Opposition has limited its stance to that of opposing everything. Bruce Billson was full of bluster trying to argue that Labor’s error was to cancel OPEL. Nick Minchin’s line of opposition was more about the threat to Telstra shareholders. 

But in real terms, all the coalition has done to date is delay. Labor couldn’t be criticised at the 2010 election for being eighteen months behind schedule with the NBN because they could too easily point to the fact that the Senate wouldn’t even debate their legislation.

The latest contribution from the Opposition leader was an idea to scrap the NBN because of the Queensland floods. He backed this up with some priceless political analogy : “The National Broadband Network is a luxury that Australia cannot now afford. The one thing you don't do is redo your bathroom when your roof has just been blown off."

The opposition has spent eighteen months demanding that the project be justified by a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, but expect to justify its cancellation with a one-liner.

Governance

Meanwhile the real issues are going relatively unnoticed in the major papers. NBN Co has started awarding some big contracts, with half a billion dollars of cable and network gear being ordered. 

Government agencies like Departments are governed by the Financial Management and Accountability Act. Authorities like Australia Post and NBN Co come under a different set of rules - the Commonwealth Authorities And Companies Act 1997

As a consequence, NBN Co is not currently subject to the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines.  The Finance Minister can, however, give directions to the directors on procurement practices.  Nothing in the Statement of Expectations given to NBN Co before Christmas talked about procurement practices. 

This is an area Abbott and Turnbull could shine a light on. Procurement has historically been an issue in telecommunications. 

Senator Conroy famously tabled an internal Telstra critique of Alcatel as a vendor when inquiring into the practices of Telstra choosing vendors. The same vendor, which is also the one the CEO and CFO of NBN Co came from, has been found to have engaged in corrupt practices elsewhere in the world. 

Yet there is no additional or explicit guidance being provided by the Government to NBN Co on procurement. Under questioning from the press about governance for NBN Co procurement, CEO Mike Quigley only replied  that he has “a lot of faith that the people employed in this company are honest, hardworking individuals. I don't expect to have to sit on everyone's shoulders."

The opposition has an opportunity here – to hold the Government to account by ensuring that the governance and oversight regimes for NBN Co are consistent with expectations of a 21st century Government Business Enterprise.

Transparency and procurement practices are two areas at least where attention might be required.  Given the industry’s recent poor performance on privacy, maybe that can be added to the list.

Turnbull and his colleagues need to do the hard yards of parliamentary scrutiny of actual legislation and get on with debating it rather than the filibustering and sound bite approach they’ve pursued thus far.

IT and telco professionals can help by identifying other governance areas that shareholders (that’s you and me) and our representatives in Canberra should be concerned about.

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