NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley will be awarded an honorary membership to the Australian Computer Society (ACS) today, despite several ACS board members' concern that the award would have political implications.
In emails leaked to iTnews, board members including the chair and vice chair of the South Australian chapter of the ACS engaged in a terse debate as to the merits of bestowing the honour on Quigley within three days of a Federal Election.
Unanimously, ACS members acknowledged that Quigley was a deserved recipient of such an award, but the issue of timing and the manner in which the vote was an affront to several members.
Reg Coutts, chair of the South Australian chapter of the ACS and a member of the expert committee that that recommended the ALP Federal Government scrap its original fibre-to-the-node NBN tender to build its own network, appeared to be the champion of honouring Quigley with the award.
Coutts, claiming to be acting on the behest of national ACS president Anthony Wong, emailed the South Australian branch manager Mandy Watson on August 12 asking that she broadcast a message to the SA board to immediately approve his wish to offer Quigley an 'honorary membership' for his "outstanding focus in building the NBN Co 'start up' in the glare of political head lights", "outstanding leadership in building the NBN" and "outstanding generosity in donating his first year salary to heart research."
Coutts intended for the honour to be awarded at an ACS event in Sydney today, where Quigley is due to give the Charles Todd Oration. This speech, organised by the Telecommunications Society of the Australia, is named in honour of the man that designed the overland telegraph that connected Australia's isolated settlements in the 1870s.
Branch manager Mandy Watson duly forwarded this request on August 13, seeking that board members vote by noon of the same day to make the necessary preparation for the Sydney event.
"I want to present it on Wednesday," Coutts said in the email.
ACS' South Australian board members were taken aback at being given a matter of hours to vote, with some taking offence at the manner in which Coutts' 'recommendation' was made.
Several wrote back to Coutts and Watson stating that they would vote against the award, citing the potential for the ACS to be viewed as supporting the ALP's NBN vision in the upcoming election.
"I personally don't have any underlying issues with Mr Mike Quigley, the NBN or anyone associated with this company," said one board member. "[But] the very poor timing shows a lack of integrity and decency. I cannot and will not support this notion."
"This looks like the ACS has strong favouritism for the ALP which I oppose and object too," he said. "It also shows poor insight and a low level of professionalism."
Another board member said that the award showed "poor timing" as "the NBN and Filter [is] seen by many as two sides of the same coin.
"I think we'd be better off waiting until after the election," the dissenter said.
Even Coutts' vice chair Jack Burton was vehemently opposed.
"I vote against," he said. "Let me clarify. Mike [Quigley] is definitely most deserving of an honorary membership. However, to award it three days before the Federal election (when the NBN is amongst the substantive issues on which that election is being fought) would be partisan and inappropriate."
But Coutts has insisted that the timing was appropriate, emailing the board to argue that because the Victorian chapter of the ACS bestowed an honour on Senator Stephen Conroy, the ACS should not shy away from awarding Quigley.
Coutts also made no apologies for preferring the ALP's broadband vision.
"Since the release of the Coalition NBN policy (10th August), the ACS, the AIIA [Australian Information Industry Association], ISOC [Internet Society] have come to the view to support the NBN policy of the Government in clear preference to the announced NBN of the Coalition," he wrote back to board members.
"The ACS needs to be seen to be a significant influencer of Government policy on ICT... On some occasions at an election - in spite of all the efforts to be bipartisan and influence the Coalition to have put forward a credible alternative to that of the Government - this has not happened.
"The policy alternatives being discussed are about NBN - not intrinsically an ALP vs Liberal issue," he said. "In my view it is a crucial policy issue for our members and the industry."
Coutts also pre-emptively defended himself against any claim of personal interest.
"Yes, I had a hand in seeding the NBN policy but as a telecommunications professional of 40 years experience, not a political mandate," he said.
Former SA branch chair Brenda Aynsley came to Coutts' defence, asking complainants to put forward "a champion of the liberal's plan for broadband" if they felt so affronted.
"I'd support his/her honorary membership too," she said.
"Come on, Brenda. It was only announced on Tuesday!" replied Burton.
By that rationale, Burton wrote, the ACS could just as well bestow an honorary membership on Optus chief Paul O'Sullivan.
"But it would make ACS look equally partisan (in the other direction) to award an HM [honorary membership] for conceiving a project whose contract was (possibly illegally) cancelled by the current government, this close to an election."
Burton instead recommended "holding off on bestowing HMs that can be construed to be in any way political until after the election."