McKenna's NBN power play

The NBN Co chairwoman's machinations to oust Mike Quigley might yet secure her a place in the Coalition's version of the NBN Co's board and the current NBN Co chief executive better be ready to cop a barrage at tonight's budget estimates hearing.

NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley will head into the latest budget estimates hearing on the NBN this evening with absolute certainty that the Coalition is preparing to give him one hell of a send-off.

This will almost certainly be Quigley’s final grilling as the head of NBN Co and the latest revelations about the dysfunction in the NBN Co board won’t do him any favours. Neither will the escalating hysteria about the asbestos contamination, which has been used by Quigley’s critics to conjure up images of Labor’s pink batts fiasco.

Which is a shame because it looks like for once Quigley did have some positive rollout numbers on his side.

According to analysis released by iTNews, NBN Co is on track to beat its revised June rollout targets by up to 13,000 premises. Unfortunately, this piece of positive news will be drowned out by the merciless scrutiny of the dysfunction between members of the NBN Co board, and just how robust are the communication channels between NBN Co and the Labor government.

The chief catalyst of this dissension is NBN Co’s recently installed chairwoman Siobhan McKenna, who is no doubt coming to grips with the reality of a wholesale overhaul of the NBN Co board post-election. McKenna previously told The Australian that she was none too pleased by the communications minister Stephen Conroy’s unfettered interventionism and a faulty chain of command that allowed to Conroy to communicate directly with Quigley, often leaving the rest of the board in the dark.

After years of criticising the NBN Co board, Malcolm Turnbull will waste little time in transforming the board to his liking. However, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a seat on the table for McKenna. If anything, her attempts to lay down the law at a board level and undermine Quigley could actually work in her favour.

Her activist approach was always going to ruffle feathers within NBN Co ranks but the assertion that she actively sought to push Quigley aside gives us an idea of the level of dysfunction at NBN Co. A dysfunction, that’s amplified with every controversy, real or imagined, and a realisation that Labor’s NBN ambition is about to be kicked to the kerb.

In fact, the discord extends to almost every segment of NBN Co management, with a lot of middle management personnel, stuck in a pre-election limbo, paddling furiously into an uncertain future.  

McKenna might not have any telco experience but she does have a few aces up her sleeve, namely her tenure as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co, and a stint on the Productivity Commission. With the Coalition keen to expose the massive costs of the Labor NBN, as a preface to launching its cost benefit analysis, McKenna might yet have a place in the Coalition’s version of NBN Co.

It’s not a safe bet just yet but at least McKenna is giving herself a fighting chance. 

Meanwhile, Quigley can look forward to an intense barrage from the Coalition members of the estimates committee, who will spare no effort in castigating the executive, in a final flourish before the federal election. 

There's a good chance of the hearing descending into an ugly, unedifying process this evening, but then again the NBN debate is no stranger to that.

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