NBN: Heads must roll, Ziggy’s first

James Riley
Editorial Director

Ziggy Switkowski’s spectacularly ill-advised and highly political injection of himself and the NBN Co he chairs into the election debate in its timing, content and repercussions mark a turning point.

It is now clear that Dr Switowski deliberately breached caretaker conventions. He was warned that he would be in breach by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet when it was provided with a draft of the piece.

Dr Switkowski, at last, is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. And one of the things the OpEd piece did was to function as something of a coming out as a clearly partisan operator. His public relations people do not appear to grasp of the irony of the lines:

Ziggy Switkowski: If he isn’t shown the door, he should go and find it himself

“During the caretaker period, NBN is carrying out the current Government’s policies, subject to caretaker conventions. We will not engage with political material.”

This lack of objectivity is not what Australian taxpayers deserve from a person appointed to a position that is expected to be objective and independent.

It now begs reconsideration of the various studies and reviews undertaken by the Coalition immediately following the 2013 election, which were based on forecast estimates made by those who are now demonstrated as partisan and politically active.

Mr Turnbull initially promised Infrastructure Australia would review the project. Yet in another example of the cavalier way this government has treated its election promises, he gave the reviews to his cronies and mates.

Even more egregiously, Dr Switkowski’s admission of partisanship effectively admits complicity in treating a $40 billion plus taxpayer-funded project, an all-to-rare major investment in both infrastructure and Australia’s future, as a political plaything designed for the political ambition of the man who is now Prime Minister.

But political calculus and leverage has been Dr Switkowski’s trademark during his uneven executive business career from Kodak to Telstra, and what is looming as an all too predictably frustrating coda at NBN.

His relentlessly analytical brain and instinct for navigating the corridors of power is an impressive combination for business success. And he expertly deployed his genuine, comforting Old World charm and witty erudition to oil the relationships that have underpinned success.

These charms have also provided cover for a lack of natural business instincts, that instinctual feel for a product, a market or a deal that marks out the top tier business executives.

Yet by unexpectedly going rogue, he both opened the door for the government’s opponents. His out of character, uncensored aggression has increased doubts about the Frankenstein NBN that he and Turnbull stitched together.

Now Dr Switkowki’s deft, sometimes Midas political touch has deserted him. Time out of the main game, even if it’s in the coach’s box, can soften a man.

Comebacks are fraught and rarely deliver on their promise. So it’s time to call for the pipe and slippers before he digs himself in any further in to a hole.

But this is about so much more than the leaks. And Dr Switkowski, despite being Australia’s most experienced rather than successful telecoms executive, learned this week in spades, if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.

But wantonly lobbing a grenade in the middle of an election campaign – in the process branding unknown members of his staff as criminals in the middle of a police investigation – will not end well.

It smacked of the take-no-prisoners approach of former Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie, the man who sacked Dr Switkowski.

It’s all too easy to see the parallels of Dr Switkowski unexpected metamorphosis into an attack dog in Mr McGauchie’s move from a ruthless yet pragmatic headkicker to threatening, untethered bully to the same origin. Their imported chief executives used to being the decider and wrapping their backwater chairmen around their fingers.

The Sol Trujillo of the piece, NBN chief executive Bill Morrow, right down to his own well paid coterie of amigos, is at a different stage of his career to the man who Donald Trump would call a Mexican.

NBN Co, as self-obsessed companies with self-obsessed chief executives can often be, blew the problem of leaks out of all proportion.

Mr Morrow should, and will probably, go six months after the election. Dr Switkowski should be shown the door immediately after the poll. Labor will certainly get rid of him, and Mr Turnbull should also but probably won’t.

Dr Switkowski of course should save them all the trouble of having to think about it.

Unlike Sol Trujillo, Bill Morrow has let ( or perhaps convinced?) his chairman to take the bullet, and there has been silence on his role in this.

That would be the silence of embarrassment that a man paid more money than Australia’s Prime Minister and given a monopoly to run, throws his toys out out the cot because he can’t engender enough loyalty and sense of purpose from his staff.

Mr Morrow loves to talk about his deep experience across multiple companies; a can-do fellow who can fix anything.

Well, he’s been found out.

A dysfunctional corporate culture and mounting staff dissatisfaction can tear a company apart as quickly as plunging sales, soaring costs or crap customer service.

Mr Morrow’s personal style aside, he is hamstrung by central non-technical flaw of the recast NBN. It has no sense of purpose. The original, although based on a combination of Sol Trujillo era back-of-the-envelope scribblings and a Kevin Rudd thought bubble, required instant resolution by Stephen Conroy.

The Turnbull/Switkowski/Morrow company is simply the same old same old, almost good enough at least for now network that Australia was facing through the Howard years: A government owned Telstra wholesale.

If it is not going to be a Nation Building project and a true investment in the future, one has to ask why the taxpayer is footing the bill.

The leaks that Dr Switkowski objected to simply exposed the back-to-the-future nature of the overstaffed project with a rate of return so poor that the taxpayer (again) has to foot the extra bill.

Little wonder then at Dr Switkowski’s howl of rage against those who would try and tarnish his last chance of telecoms redemption.

He wrongly went after those thieving leakers who have shone some light on this egregiously ill-designed public project that has consistently missed targets, overstated speeds, and rollout timetables.

Such a public take down as the one made by public service chief Martin Parkinson this week is hardly a reputation-enhancing lesson in business at any anytime.

But it has an added impact in the long twilight of a high profile but flawed business career.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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