An op-ed penned by NBN’s chairman, Ziggy Switkowski, violated the caretaker conventions that guide the activities of the public service during an election campaign, according to the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).
The opinion piece was a response to criticism levied at NBN in the wake of Australian Federal Police raids that targeted Labor staffers.
The raids followed the leaking of internal NBN documents that were used to paint an unflattering picture of some aspects of the National Broadband Network rollout, including details on copper remediation costs, the state of the Optus HFC network, and problems sourcing power for nodes.
The documents were circulated to journalists and used by Labor to attack the government’s handling of the NBN rollout. Labor has made a claim of parliamentary privilege in relation to documents seized by the AFP during the raids; as a result they have been sealed until the claim can be dealt with by parliament.
In his opinion piece Switkowski defended NBN’s decision to refer the leaks to the AFP.
Labor’s Tony Burke, the manager of opposition business, in May wrote to DPMC head Martin Parkinson querying whether the article was in breach of the caretaker conventions.
In a response dated 10 June Parkinson wrote that “some of the comments in the opinion piece are not consistent with established practices around the Caretaker Conventions, which are directed at protecting the apolitical nature of government bodies and preventing controversies about the role of those bodies distracting attention from the substantive issues in the election campaign”.
“I have conveyed this view directly to Dr Switkowski,” Parkinson added.
Computerworld has published the letter below.
The letter revealed that NBN provided an advance draft of the article to the Department of the Communications and the Arts, which in turn “sought, and received, advice from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that the publication of the article in that form was not consistent with the established practices associated with the Caretaker Conventions”.
“I understand that view was strongly conveyed to nbn by the Department of Communications and the Arts, as was the view that the conventions apply to the Chairman, as well as to the CEO and the company,” the letter states. “Our understanding is that this view was passed to Dr Switkowski.”
However, Parkinson notes that the Caretaker Conventions “do not have legal force” and the DPMC “does not have the power to enforce the observance of the conventions or practices.”
“The Caretaker Guidelines state that: ‘[government companies] …should observe the conventions and practices unless to do so would conflict with their legal obligations or compelling organisational requirements’,” a statement issued by NBN said.
“Any accusation that the company’s staff, management, its board and (by implication) its shareholder departments have conspired to keep large cost increases secret from the Australian people is not only plainly and demonstrably false, but is a serious accusation in light of the Corporations Act (for example section 184).
This is obviously not acceptable and the opinion piece addressed the
allegations in a manner commensurate with the mode
in which they were made; that is, publicly in the national media.”
Labor earlier this week unveiled its NBN election policy.