Two days after the Australian Federal Police’s extraordinary intervention into a federal election campaign by raiding the Melbourne offices of the Australian Labor Party in May, NBN Co chair Ziggy Switkowski picked up the phone and called CEO Bill Morrow. In that call he complained that the media was being “very negative” about the government-owned company deciding to call the cops in to investigate leaks from NBN Co to the ALP over the past few months, debate had been “poorly informed and inappropriate”, and a response was required.
The next day at the usual Monday board meeting for the company, Switkowski again said NBN Co was copping a lot of heat for the raids, and got support from the board to write an opinion piece.
“I thought it was time to correct it. An opinion piece in the press was the way to go,” he told a Senate estimates hearing on Friday.
The chairman then set about writing the piece over the next three days, during which time there were some concerns within NBN Co that writing such a piece might put the government-owned company in danger of breaching caretaker conventions. On May 25, NBN executive general manager of corporate affairs Karina Keisler sent the draft op-ed to the Department of Communications. The department then turned to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and as Crikey previously reported, head of PM&C Martin Parkinson urged against the op-ed, saying it was inconsistent with caretaker conventions regarding public statements government-owned companies are allowed to make during an election campaign. This was strongly conveyed to NBN Co.
Switkowski ignored the advice, and by Saturday, his op-ed had been published in Fairfax papers. Switkowski told the Senate estimates hearing that he only took Parkinson’s advice as an “interpretation” of caretaker conventions, and that he was fine to go ahead with the piece.
“I don’t believe I breached the caretaker convention,” he said. “This is one of these things where reasonable people can end up on the opposite end of an issue.”
Switkowski said he didn’t seek legal advice about consistency with caretaker conventions, relying on his personal belief as someone with a long history working for a government-owned business.
“I’ve been involved in GBEs since when I joined Telstra in 1997 when it was a 100% government entity … I’ve always understood that at the end of the day, as a chair of a GBE, I would have to exercise my judgement as to what the appropriate thing to do, and that’s what I did in this case.”
“It was my call, and I made the decision. Despite the cautionary advice.”
Switkowski said the only conflict he saw was potentially against the “spirit” of the caretaker convention. Since the piece was published, there have been calls for the PM to sack Switkowski for defying the advice of PM&C.