The company responsible for rolling out the National Broadband Network across Australia was directly warned that a draft opinion piece by its chairman, Ziggy Switkowski, could potentially be seen as favouring one side during an election campaign.
In a letter submitted in response to Senate Questions on Notice late Friday afternoon, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts Ian Robinson told NBN the draft article “would present real risks to the company if it was issued”.
NBN was told that text included in the final article was contentious and potentially inflammatory, and could be a distraction during the election and raise concerns about NBN favouring the Coalition government.
“[The article] goes well beyond providing factual information during caretaker and would add to controversy and potentially be seen to be favouring one side of the election debate,” Robinson said.
The department offered to help NBN “explore alternative options” to make the claims put forward by Switkowski — that the documents seized during Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids in June were stolen, and used for political gain — include more factual information, and remove the possibly of contravening the caretaker conventions.
That offer was declined by NBN, Robinson said in Senate Estimates in October.
Subsequent to the article’s publication, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) Martin Parkinson found that NBN had breached the caretaker conventions that dictate how government departments and business are to behave during an election.
Speaking in Senate Estimates last month, Switkowski maintained he did not breach the conventions.
“I’ve never viewed this as advice about my breaching the caretaker convention. It was advice about how the caretaker convention might be interpreted in the light of my opinion piece,” the NBN chair said.
“If there was a conflict, it was with the spirit of the caretaker convention. I understood that might be the case.”
Switkowski said he used the opinion piece as a vehicle for correcting “misinformation” on the raids — although he claimed that he has never read the leaked documents, and has “no idea” of the detail contained within them, having only read the media reports on the matter — which he said gave him “justification” to go ahead with publishing the piece despite advice from PM&C.
In July, former Communications Minister and Senator Stephen Conroy called for the resignation of both Switkowski and Fifield, saying that the AFP raids on his office and the home of one of his staffers were illegal.
Last week, the House of Representatives Committee of Privileges recommended the documents confiscated during AFP’s NBN raids on Parliament House in August will remain confidential under parliamentary privilege, and will be returned to the former shadow communications minister.
“In the committee’s view, the terms of the search warrant are wide ranging and coincide with the nature of the Member for Blaxland’s parliamentary responsibilities, including as shadow minister,” the committee said.
“As the NBN falls within the subject matter responsibilities of the Communications portfolio, during the critical period defined in the search warrant, the Member for Blaxland had parliamentary responsibilities in relation to this subject in the usual course of his role as shadow minister for communications.”
In June, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australians could not afford any more politicking with the NBN.
Switkowski was reappointed by the Australian government for another three years as chair of the NBN board in September.