Stone-walling at Senate Estimates on the second-rate NBN

In responding to questions at the Senate Estimates hearing held on 9 February 2016, NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow admitted he did not know the number of nodes being built during the Fibre to the Node (FTTN) rollout and he went on to say that any information about what is being rolled out by NBN Co would be commercial-in-confidence, meaning that he would very selectively answer questions put to him by Senators. By the end of the session, Morrow had answered very few questions.

The purpose of Senate Estimates hearings is to examine the operations of government relating to expenditure of public funds and plays a key role in the parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. But as Morrow demonstrated so diligently is that you can persuade executives from a government business enterprise to attend the hearings but you cannot guarantee that they will answer any questions put to them.

At a time when Australia has embarked on the largest nation building project of the digital era, executives from the government business enterprise rolling out the NBN rely on obfuscation and “commercial-in-confidence” to ignore reasonable and justifiable questions from Senators.

Morrow’s responses at the Senate Estimates hearing included, “I do not know”, “I would have to take that on notice”, “I will take it on notice”, “I would imagine we do”, and I do not have that [information] here” and many variations of these statements.

Senate Estimates hearings involving executives from NBN Co have become a sad pantomime. Senators spend a couple of hours asking Morrow and CFO Stephen Rue probing questions about what taxpayers are receiving for an ever increasing expenditure of public and borrowed funds and unsurprisingly most of the questions remain unanswered because key NBN Co executives that should be expected to be able to answer the questions about expenditure and what is actually being done by NBN Co, are not present.

Australian’s should be concerned that executives from a government business enterprise are permitted to deflect, delay or simply ignore questions from Senators that are attempting to scrutinise how the government is spending taxpayer dollars.

On more than one occasion now, Morrow has refused to acknowledge documents leaked from NBN Co and reported on in the media. If someone within NBN Co believes a document to be important enough to leak to the media, it is highly likely that Morrow would be asked questions about the document at the next Senate Estimates hearings and Australians should have a reasonable expectation that Morrow will provide answers.

But this is not how it works in practice because Morrow’s response to a question about the document titled IOP 2.0 FTTN review dated 26 February 2015 was “The document that you refer to, somebody showed me a copy of that. I cannot confirm that that is even a valid NBN document. If it was, it would be commercial-in-confidence.”

When asked again about a detail contained in the document, Morrow stated “I cannot confirm anything that is in that document. If that was our document, it would be commercial-in-confidence. I cannot even confirm that it is our document. Anybody can prepare something of that nature. Therefore, the information that you are asking, if you want to know the number of nodes or something then I am happy to take that on notice.”

Australians might wonder how hard would it be for the CEO of a government business enterprise to ask that someone check the organisation’s document register and to follow up with an email to employees asking if someone had drafted the document.

And you can be certain that NBN Co carries out an internal investigation to find the people that are leaking documents containing details about the different NBN rollouts and in particular details about NBN Co’s rollout of the obsolete VDSL2 Fibre to the Node (FTTN) component of the NBN.

Morrow’s use of plausible deniability is something that we might expect in a Monty Python skit but not by the CEO of a government business enterprise responsible for Australia’s largest infrastructure project.

The logic goes something like this: As CEO Morrow should not be expected to know the details of what is going on within NBN Co and even though leaked documents are reported in the media, and subsequently brought to Morrow’s attention, it would be disruptive to enquire if the document originated within NBN Co, therefore Morrow is unable to confirm the documents originality and cannot speak to anything contained within the document.

At the end of the hearing the Chair Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds summed up the collective exasperation at what had just transpired when she said “there is a lot of technical information and detail that two people cannot possibly be across. So what I was suggest is that you consider your preparations for the next estimates. As you know, that will be a longer session, no doubt, with nbn. We know it is going to be in the week of 29 May. There are longitudinal themes, so if you and your staff are able to go through and review those themes and make sure that you either have the appropriate officers here, or on hand, so that they can email you some questions and you are able to answer the questions more quickly for the committee members. I think that would also assist you in taking fewer questions on notice, which obviously has a significant workload sitting behind that to get them in on time.”

Morrow’s efforts at Senate Estimates hearings have been nothing more than professional stone-walling. Australians expect more from senior executives that are responsible to government and it is folly to treat the Senate with disdain. The secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the NBN is a warning sign that cannot be ignored. Australians will be left with a second-rate broadband network at a time when our major competitors in the global digital economy are rolling out fibre to homes and business.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering at RMIT University

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