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Thursday, 27 October 2011 12:02

Opposition scraping the barrel for NBN opposition avenues


Is the Coalition getting desperate to find ways to attack the NBN? The latest assaults from its chief protagonists Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Fletcher certainly suggest this to be the case.


Turnbull grilled NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, at the recent Joint NBN Committee hearing and afterwards issued a statement saying "Quigley confirmed that he had been instructed by the Labor Government to deliver a broadband network that would deliver 100 megabits per second to at least 90 percent of the population by fibre to the premises." Well Duh! That is exactly what the Government promised when it announced its NBN plan in April 2009.

Then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, said that the new network would: connect 90 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with FTTP broadband services with speeds up to 100Mbps and connect all other premises in Australia with next generation wireless and satellite technologies that would deliver broadband speeds of at least 12Mbps.

Quigley was hired to do this, not to question it. But Turnbull went after him with bulldog tenacity. "When I asked him if he had been asked whether there were any other technologies that could deliver 100 megabits per second, he said he had not been asked. I then queried if he had been asked whether 100 megabits per second was the appropriate bandwidth requirement for households, and he said that he had not been asked about that either - it was part of his brief."

Seems Turnbull simply needed a fresh hook upon which to hang out and air once again the arguments against the NBN that he has run many times already.

His colleague Paul Fletcher fired the next salvo, revealing that average wages paid during FY2011 to NBN Co employees were well ahead of those paid to Telstra and Westpac and up there with "the Millionaire Factory" Macquarie Bank.

When my colleague Stan Beer published details of Fletcher's attack he got a swift rebuttal from NBN Co's Andrew Sholl. "Our 2009/2010 head count was 531 (the figure Mr Fletcher used) but that number rose considerably in the 2010/2011 financial year to 855." Sholl said.

I smelt a rat. Fletcher claimed to have got his NBN wages costs from the NBN 2011 annual report. Fletcher is no fool. I could not see him getting the wrong number for employees from the same report. Sure enough, he had not. "As at 30 June 2011, NBN Co had 855 employees, up from 207 in June 2010," the report says.


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What Fletcher had done was to work out an AVERAGE number of 531 by summing 207 and 855 and dividing by two. When Beer set the record straight, of course it gave Fletcher another, and quite legitimate, avenue of attack against NBN Co.

However that does not excuse Fletcher's specious argument that NBN Co staff are overpaid. As he would well know, unlike Westpac Bank, NBN Co does not have a vast army of low paid clerical staff - bank tellers etc, nor a vast army of relatively low paid technicians, and clerical staff like Telstra.

Secondly to claim, as he did in attacking Sholl, "These calculations used the standard methodology of calculating an average headcount for the year based on start of year headcount and end of year headcount," ignores the reality.

While this methodology is perfectly valid for a mature organisation with a very large and largely static workforce, it is likely to be woefully inaccurate when applied to an organisation that almost triples in size in 12 months. It assumes fairly even growth in employee numbers throughout the year. To be even reasonably confident of the result Fletcher should have used at least quarterly employee numbers and wages and, ideally, monthly.

Those, however, are not available. We invite NBN Co to provide them and settle this silly argument once and for all.

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