The members of the Senate Select Committee installed to scrutinise the National Broadband Network are seemingly at each other's throats, with the political obstinacy that has so far characterised the project once again threatening the prospect of delivering a meaningful outcome.
An interim report tabled by the committee has called for a comprehensive rewrite of the NBN strategic review handed down by NBN Co late last year, challenging the faulty assumptions on which it was based.
According to the report, the review currently on the table is “deeply flawed” and essentially an exercise in undermining the rationale for Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises model.
Distortion to static
The report is a comprehensive laundry list of complaints, but here’s the crux of it.
According to the committee, the revised outlook includes financial manipulations and other irregularities, chief among them the exclusion of “approximately $4 billion in ‘business as usual’, incremental architecture savings signed off by previous NBN Co management, and their characterisation as ‘radical’ for inclusion” in Scenario 2 (‘Radically Redesigned FTTP’).
Then there is the assumption of a delay in the revised deployment schedule that is “at odds with NBN Co’s current run rate”, something the committee says is a deliberate attempt to undermine Labor’s model by removing the $11.6bn in revenues and adding $13bn in peak funding to the FTTP model.
While the committee wants to send NBN Co back to the drawing board to correct the “deficiencies and distortions”, it suggests that the rate of the FTTP rollout be sped up.
There are a few other recommendations on offer, all universally desultory as to how the Coalition has handled the NBN so far.
Politically motivated board appointments, multiple reviews running on short timetables and a lack of transparency are all indictments on a governance culture that needs to be remedied, the committee says.
The bottom line: the Coalition is fudging its numbers and stacking the board in its favour to ram a sub-standard NBN down our throats, and the committee is providing the sole bulwark of scrutiny to keep the Coalition honest.
The only problem is that the members of the panel are evidently more interested in playing partisan politics, which shouldn’t be a surprise with former communications minister the one Stephen Conroy running it.
Conroy’s presence is unfortunately the single biggest factor as to why politics, not process, have become the key focus of attention.
As the three Coalition senators in the committee point out, the committee hearings have become a grand face-saving exercise for Senator Conroy, the architect of Labor’s NBN.
Senator Conroy’s knowledge of the sector and the NBN process is an invaluable asset to the committee, but having said that, his odius conduct during the hearings has understandably left him open to criticism.
Conroy has a reputation for not mincing his words, and while his belligerence does have a place, his tendency to run the committee hearings as his private fiefdom has left the panel divided and allowed the senators to indulge in political posturing.
Does the Coalition’s NBN plan need stringent scrutiny? Absolutely. Is the Senate Committee doing a good job providing that scrutiny? The jury is out on that.
The next committee hearing is this Friday and amid the flurry of accusations and invectives, let’s hope something of value gets some oxygen.