NBN Co board's fatal dysfunction

NBN Co’s board may have hired the services of professional lobby firm to secure its survival post-election but it's unlikely that NBN Co chair Siobhan McKenna and the rest of the board's members are going to be around for too much longer.

NBN Co’s board has reportedly hired the services of professional lobby firm Bespoke Approach to secure its survival post-election and from the looks of things Bespoke has its job cut out for it. The way things stand at the moment, it’s likely that NBN Co chair Siobhan McKenna and the rest of the board members’efforts to secure their seats are going to be in vain.

The decision to involve a lobby group subjects the NBN Co’s board to justifiable criticism and the shadow communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is quite right in asking why the members of the board feel the need to fork out the cash to spruik their individual credentials rather than that of NBN Co.

The prime motivation for the board is clearly survival even if the methods utilised allow all and sundry to pour further scorn on NBN Co. As unpalatable as that seems it should come as no surprise, given the deficiencies in the governance of the company to date.

NBN Co’s outgoing boss Mike Quigley couldn’t have picked a better time to make his exit. The departure of Stephen Conroy was perhaps the final trigger for Quigley to make his move, which allows him to depart with a modicum of dignity rather than being shown the door by a Coalition government. It also allows him to distance himself from the looming construction troubles headed in NBN Co’s direction.

Quigley may have made his fair share of mistakes but he has succeeded in laying down the foundations of a national broadband network, under difficult circumstances. However, he leaves behind a substantial mess, especially on the construction side of things, which once again reared their head this week.

The subcontractors are up in arms in Tasmania and parts of Victoria over below par pay rates, while locals in northern NSW are livid about being cut out of the consultation process over the construction of new wireless towers.

On top of that, the fate of Syntheo remains up in the air and with it the prospect of further delays in the fibre rollout. There’s a good chance that the bulk of rollout in South Australia and Western Australia is soon going to fall under the direct control of NBN Co.

Managing such a task will pose a stern test for NBN Co’s senior management and its dysfunctional board. It will also be another flash point that will further embolden Turnbull’s call for an immediate audit on the progress of the NBN rollout.  

Turnbull is keen to use the exercise to validate the egregious costs of the Labor NBN - all the while sidestepping the issue of the Coalition’s own half-baked NBN costings - however, an audit will undoubtedly lay bare the deficiencies in NBN Co’s current management of the rollout. And that’s not going to help the board’s case.

One can also suggest that a Labor victory doesn’t guarantee safety for McKenna and the rest of the NBN Co board. If Kevin Rudd is somehow able to manufacture a victory at the polls it might also be in Labor’s interest to ring in the changes at NBN Co.

Quigley’s successor is unlikely to take the helm until the election is done and dusted and the ascension of a new NBN Co CEO may also be a good time to bring in some fresh blood at a board level, talent that at the very least bring an ounce of experience in the telecom and construction space. Just who is going to get that direct hotline to Anthony Albanese, or Ed Husic remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that the mistakes of the past are not compounded.

Unfortunately, getting the best outcome will require combatting the opaque nature of the appointments. There’s no cogent argument present as to what criterion was used to pick the NBN Co board or what requisite skills many of them brought to the table. Are bean counters the best people to oversee an infrastructure project as audacious and ambitious as the NBN?

Not from what we have seen so far, but this is pretty much par for the course in Australian corporate circles and despite all of Turnbull’s protestations a Coalition government is unlikely to change the status quo.  

Building a NBN that Australians deserve and need will require a lot more than just overhauling the NBN Co's, although that might be a good place to start, what's needed is an overhaul of the management culture that puts expediencies and connections over competence and experience.

Alan Kohler will be debating Malcolm Turnbull on Coalition NBN policy at a business lunch at the Sheraton Wentworth in Sydney on August 1. To book a ticket click here.

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