NBN’s chairman, Ziggy Switkowski, has done a “remarkable job,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said today. Under Switkowski and CEO Bill Morrow, NBN has undergone a “phenomenal turnaround,” the prime minister claimed during a doorstop interview.
Turnbull’s support for the NBN chairman comes a day after revelations that NBN ignored advice that an opinion piece penned by Switkowski was a breach of the caretaker conventions that guide the public service during an election period.
The article by Switkowski defended NBN referring the leaking of internal documents to the Australian Federal Police for investigation. The AFP investigation led to dramatic raids on Labor staffers.
The leaked documents, circulated to press outlets, were used to attack the NBN rollout.
Labor MP Tony Burke, the manager of opposition business, in May asked the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, whether the article was in breach of the caretaker conventions.
In a letter to Burke, 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”.
Parkinson revealed that NBN had 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”.
“The caretaker convention, compliance with it, if you like, is a matter to be determined by, as Martin Parkinson observed, by the head of the relevant agency,” Turnbull said today. “In this case that is NBN Co and that is Ziggy Switkowski. He explained why he made the statement he did, why he felt it was operationally necessary and I respect his decision to do so.”
NBN “was being accused in the public domain of very serious misconduct, which was undermining the morale of 5000 people working for it and ... he had to set the facts straight and he has done that,” Turnbull said.
Labor leader Bill Shorten said yesterday that NBN was “doing everything they can to cover up for Malcolm Turnbull's incompetence and their own misadministration”. He said Switkowski’s article was a “shameful breach of the caretaker convention”.
“Yet again NBN Co are doubling down on the cover-up, on the denial,” Shorten said.
Asked if the NBN chairman should be sacked, Shorten said that was an issue for Turnbull.
“On one hand if he doesn't sack Dr Switkowski or take action, he’s condoning a breach of caretaker conventions. Of course if he does, it confirms the game is up in terms of how NBN Co has been going in the last three years.”
A statement issued yesterday by NBN said:
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”.
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.