The political shadow that tailed Mike Quigley

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The political shadow that tailed Mike Quigley

Colleagues, adversaries talk of grace under pressure.

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When Mike Quigley became the first employee of the government-owned company created to build the national broadband network, he knew it was going to be a political game.

Over four years, Quigley has experienced more scrutiny of his role than just about any executive running a publicly-listed company.

But the increasingly polarised and politicised debate of the vision at the heart of the NBN, has, in Quigley's own words, made the job much harder than anything he’d experienced previously.

“While it was a little more difficult because it was politically contentious, I think it would be unrealistic of me to think it would be any other way,” Quigley said upon announcing his retirement on Friday.

The project to build the NBN is a “political football”, he said, and the ongoing debate made it more difficult to get on with the job at hand.

“It’s not unexpected that there is going to be some political commentary. The fact that I’m CEO just means I’m subject to it,” Quigley said. “It does sometimes make the project a little more difficult to do, but I just try and get on with life.”

Former NBN Co staffer Scott Rhodie said some elements within the mainstream media used the NBN to "attack [Quigley] personally."

"The old line of 'play the ball, not the man' comes to mind," the former digital communications manager said.

"Trying to dig up dirt on an honourable man who came out of retirement to lead the country's biggest ever infrastructure project was pretty low, especially when there was no story to dig up. That didn't stop some trying to drag his good name through the dirt."

Several of Quigley's telco partners expressed their admiration for a man they said has been passionate and resolved under pressure.

“Unlike the overseas experience, this crucial national project has been sadly politicised from the start and Mike has shown a strong resolve in both the media and political spotlight. No one can underestimate the pressure that Mike was under and I salute him for his service to the industry,” said Michael Malone, CEO of NBN Co's largest retail ISP partner, iiNet.

Even those with which Quigley had to negotiate the hardest - such as Telstra CEO David Thodey - wished him the best. 

Thodey said he "admired [Quigley's] drive and enthusiasm to get the job done and respected his tough and principled approach to the NBN negotiation."

"I wasn't pushed"

Quigley's retirement announcement fell just shy of his four-year anniversary at the company. Over the last couple of months he’s been facing intense pressure over his future in the role, thanks to persistent rumours regarding a campaign to oust him, reportedly spearheaded by new NBN Co chairman Siobhan McKenna.

The campaign became more realistic following the departure of former Communications Minister and unapologetic Quigley-backer Stephen Conroy. Conroy had stood strong behind the CEO he hired, despite the persistent attacks of shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull around Quigley’s lack of experience with infrastructure projects.

On Friday, Quigley refuted Turnbull's claim that he was pushed. He said he had made it known to Conroy, former NBN Co chairman Harrison Young and McKenna for some time that he was planning to retire.

Quigley said his goal had always been to oversee the initial implementation, set-up and policy discussions, and depart when the company's focus would revert to the physical rollout.

He told reporters he wanted to remain at NBN Co until it had met an initial set of forecasted targets around premises passed with fibre.

“I wanted to make sure we achieved the numbers we announced in March,” he said. “Frankly, I’ve been in the company for as long as I expected, and for the process of handing over to a new incoming person it is the right time in the phasing of the project.”

The most recent criticism of NBN Co concerns the lack of progress its construction partners have made on the rollout. 

Targets have been reduced on several occasions and contractors have been dismissed.

The Liberal Coalition has seized every such opportunity to inflate its estimate for the cost of the build - currently claiming the project will cost $94 billion, over twice NBN Co's forecast of $37 billion. 

Quigley has repeatedly dismissed these estimates and on Friday likened any increases in cost to a builder being asked to add another bedroom to an already-built house.

“If a builder comes along and says add another bedroom, you don’t say the costs have increased - the scope of the initial project has increased,” he said.

He did concede that the scale and complexity of the project had left room for error.

“Sometimes you get things right from the beginning but quite often you don’t," he said, when asked about working with construction partners. "We’ve been going through a learning curve."

Retirement

Quigley told reporters he would go back into retirement once a replacement is found by NBN Co.

Communications Minister and deputy PM Anthony Albanese reminded reporters that at the end of his first year as NBN Co CEO, Quigley donated his $2 million annual paycheck to Neuroscience Research Australia. Battling illness is a cause close to Quigley's heart - he suffered with leukaemia in the 1990s and survived after his brother offered up bone marrow to transplant.

“He didn’t have to take on this NBN role,” Albanese said on Friday. “He came out of retirement and donated his first year's salary for research in the medical field, an extraordinary example of philanthropy that unfortunately is all too rare in the corporate world. 

“So I say today, to Mike Quigley, you have the best wishes of the Government and I'm sure of all Australians who will recognise your central and pivotal role in the foundations of the National Broadband Network.”

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