Senate Estimates play a key role in parliamentary scrutiny, in particular the spending of public funds. But important questions about the National Broadband Network are going unanswered, Mark Gregory writes.
The National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout in Australia has been fraught with political agendas. In particular, the decision in 2013 by the incoming Coalition government to replace the NBN Co management team with people supportive of a change from fibre to an obsolete copper-based access network has led to questions of accountability, and the role of Parliamentary scrutiny of expenditure.
In responding to questions at the Australian Parliament 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 added that any information about what is being rolled out would be commercial-in-confidence, meaning that he would selectively answer questions put to him by Senators. By the end of the session, Mr Morrow had answered very few.
The purpose of Senate Estimates hearings is to examine the operations of government relating to spending of public funds, and play a key role in the parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. However, as Mr Morrow demonstrated, you can persuade executives from a government business enterprise to attend the hearings, but you cannot guarantee they will answer questions put to them.
Australia has embarked on the largest nation-building project of the digital era, yet it would seem executives from the government business enterprise rolling out the NBN rely on obfuscation and “commercial-in-confidence” to ignore justifiable questions from Senators.
NBN Co is a government business enterprise, and the apparent Parliamentary policy of permitting non-responsive answers including “commercial-in-confidence’ should be rejected. NBN Co personnel, who are in effect public officers, should answer questions put to them in a Senate Estimates hearing, even if this were in a closed session.
It is difficult to ascertain whether a witness before a Senate Estimates hearing has obstructed the inquiries of a Senate committee, because to date the Senate has not had the occasion to use either of the penalties that may be applied under the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987. The Senate may impose terms of imprisonment or substantial fines for individuals and corporations as a penalty for contempt.
Instead, Senate Estimates hearings involving executives from NBN Co have become a sad pantomime. Senators spend a couple of hours questioning Mr Morrow and CFO Stephen Rue about what taxpayers are receiving for an ever-increasing expenditure of public and borrowed funds, and most of the questions remain unanswered, because key NBN Co executives are not present.
Mr Morrow has also refused to acknowledge documents leaked from NBN Co and reported on in the media. Australians could reasonably expect that he will provide answers.
But Mr 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 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.
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.”
Mr Morrow’s efforts at Senate Estimates hearings have been nothing more than professional stonewalling. Australians expect more from senior executives responsible to government. NBN Co and Mr Morrow appear to have been in contempt of the Senate committee on a number of occasions over the past two years for: refusing without reasonable excuse to answer a question; giving misleading evidence; and failing to attend or to produce documents when required to do so. The NBN is Australia’s largest infrastructure project and Australians would expect the Parliament to do everything possible to ensure that NBN Co and its senior management team were open and transparent at a Senate Estimates hearing.
It is not reasonable to wait until after the NBN rollout has been completed for a Royal Commission to be called into the inner workings of NBN Co and the actions of senior management. It is time that the Senate referred NBN Co and Mr Morrow to the Senate Committee of Privileges for review and possible findings of being in contempt of the Senate.
The 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.