Stephen Conroy held a press conference outside in the Senate courtyard at 5pm yesterday to talk about the national broadband network bids. On his way over, he stopped and chatted briefly with David Quilty, Telstra’s “Group Managing Director, Public Policy and Communications”. The assembled media saw it, and you might have spotted it on ABC News’s report. Quilty has been with Telstra for a while but he used to be John Howard’s Cabinet advisor and, before that, he was Richard Alston’s chief of staff.

Not the best look, stopping to shoot the breeze with Telstra’s chief lobbyist immediately before talking to the media about how Telstra’s broadband “bid” would be considered like everyone else’s by the Government’s “expert panel.”

The panel is made up of Communications Secretary Patricia Scott, John Wylie of Lazard Carnegie Wylie; Allphones Chairman Tony Mitchell; Professor Rod Tucker, Professor Reg Coutts; former Australian Communications Authority Chairman Tony Shaw; and Ken Henry.

Considering the Telstra bid shouldn’t take long because it’s non-compliant. The Request for Proposal requires coverage of 98% of the population. You could bid for a one area, like Transact did for the ACT, or you can bid for the whole lot. You can’t bid for 90%. Out it goes. That should be the end of the matter.

Will it work out that way? Well, this is what Telstra did under the previous Government’s rural broadband program. It deliberately submitted a noncompliant bid and then tried to mire the program in litigation when the Government awarded the contract to the compliant OPEL bid. It lost in court — lost badly — but not before it had slowed the program down sufficient that it could be killed off by the incoming Labor Government. Conroy cancelled the OPEL contract on the alleged grounds of non-performance earlier this year.

Thuggish and wholly amoral? Well, that’s Telstra.

Nick Minchin is right in predicting that there’ll be more litigation from Telstra — or its competitors — before this is over. The Department of Communications has probably spent millions on having probity advisers and lawyers poring over every syllable of the tender documentation and parsing every word uttered in discussions between the parties. No Commonwealth procurement happens these days without probity advisers vetting absolutely everything, and the sensitivity and size of this procurement would’ve meant everything would’ve been double-checked. It won’t be enough to stop a lawyer fest.

Minchin said yesterday that he felt sorry for Conroy — perhaps the first person to utter those words in many years. Minchin was referring to Conroy having to implement a dud policy — the $4.7b allocated by the Government for the network is unlikely to be enough. He was also given an absurd timeframe in which to implement it. On the Government’s original timetable, the first cable should have been being rolled out around now. That’s probably a year off and possibly much longer.

If Conroy really wants to get the National Broadband Network going he should stop shilly-shallying around with lawyers and telecommunications providers and go back to his old factional warfare days. Go down to a local soccer club in Melbourne, promise an ALP membership for every kilometer of cable laid, and sign up people to start doing it branch-stacking style. Get a race going between different ethnic communities to see who can roll out fastest. It could secure high-speed internet access for Australians AND the grip of the Right on the ALP for years to come.

Instead, no one’s likely to get any broadband for ages. Especially not in the bush, thanks to Conroy killing off the OPEL contract in a decision that will increasingly look wrong-headed and premature as time goes by.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey