Friday, 23 May 2008 14:41

Auditor General says Conroy breached broadband tender requirements: opposition

Australian Federal Opposition Communications Spokesperson Bruce Billson says a letter from the Auditor-General shows that Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has breached his own “broadband tender requirements”.

Federal Opposition Communucations Spokesperson Bruce Billson has published a press release saying that the “Auditor General has found that despite Communications Minister Stephen Conroy publicly inviting 'non-complying bids' for a proposed National Broadband Network, current tender guidelines do not allow for such bids to be accepted.”

This information was communicated to Billson in a letter now published at the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) after Billson wrote to the ANAO with several concerns about the entire process.

Billson’s release says that: “The Auditor General found the Request for Proposal tender documents must be amended if such bids were to be formally considered. This confirmed my firm view that Senator Conroy's public statements directly breached his own formal tender requirements, adding to the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this shambolic process.”

The ANAO seems to more-or-less say in its letter that the Federal Government can change the tender process as it pleases, when it pleases, although not being a politician, public servant or an auditor, I’m just not sure whether Bruce Billson is correct, or not.

The Australian National Audit Office, the ANAO, says in its letter that “There is significant flexibility designed into the NBN proposal process, allowing the
Commonwealth to respond to changing circumstances”

The letter also notes that the Request for Proposal (RFP) “provides this flexibility” in a range of circumstances.

Some, but not all, of the examples given in the ANAO’s aforementioned and aforelinked letter include:

- the Commonwealth published a planned timetable for the RFP process at ci. 1.2.3, but
notes that it is indicative only and may be subject to change at the Commonwealth's

- the Commonwealth may extend the Closing Time to lodge proposals (ci. 4.1.2);

- the Commonwealth may amend this RFP or the RFP process at any time. If the
Commonwealth does so prior to the Closing Time, the Commonwealth will inform
Proponents (ci. 5.2.1);

- the Commonwealth may, at its absolute discretion and without providing reasons,
change the structure or timing of the RFP process (ci.

Billson’s release continues, saying that: “As it stands, Senator Conroy must further change his own tender process to match his rhetoric, if he is serious about accepting non-complying bids, and also apologise to potential bidders for misleading them to this point.”

The rest of Billson’s release is published here as it’s not available at Billson’s page on the Liberal Party website, with each paragraph opening and ending with quotation marks.

“The investigation also revealed that yesterday’s announced 12-week extension to the tender period was forced on the Rudd Government, after it was found that expert technical advice designed to protect the integrity of the tender process had not been followed by Senator Conroy.”

Please read on to page 2 for a “strange coincidence” – and the rest of Bruce Billson’s release.

“In a strange coincidence, the minister’s announcement was made the same day the Auditor General responded to my request for him to examine this process.”

“I had highlighted how inequitable it was to expect bidders to develop proposals in such a tight timeframe, when they did not have equal or full access to crucial network information.”  

“As a result of the Auditor General's intervention, potential bidders now have a guaranteed 12 weeks to prepare their multi-billion dollar proposals from the date that all necessary information about existing infrastructure becomes available for proposal design and costing proposals.”

“The Auditor General acknowledged that the politically inspired timeframe has necessitated a one-stage process with 'significant flexibility’. He advised that the Minister's own Department 'considers that a flexible approach is necessary to manage the uncertainties surrounding the proponent selection process'.”

“It is clear that the ridiculous politically-inspired timetable bureaucrats and the industry are labouring under is driven purely by the Rudd Government's self-interest of wanting a media and photo opportunity before the end of the year.”

“Greater certainty and a clear account of key national interest objectives, consumer choice and value-for-money outcomes, and competition, pricing and open access requirements are desperately needed to give potential bidders, broadband users and the broader community confidence that the Rudd Government can turn political sound bytes into sound public policy.”

“The Auditor General also said: "Given the materiality of the NBN program, I will include the RFP process of the NBN program as a potential audit topic in the ANAO's (Australian National Audit Office) Planned Audit Work Program 2008-09”.”

Billson’s press release also notes that the Auditor General’s written reply, which is linked to on page 1, apparently “failed to address the extraordinary 'gag' provision and the attempt of the RFP to talk its way out of its 'process contract' obligations the tender actually sets up.”

There has been no official response from the Minister of Communications as yet.

Please read on to page 3.

Billson’s press release on the topic, dated the 23rd of May 2008, is oddly, for a Communications Spokesperson, not yet on his page at the Liberal Party website.

As of late 23rd May, 7.20pm, it’s not there, so I can’t link to it for you, but as I’ve reprinted it here it doesn’t matter, for now. Billson’s page is otherwise here.

Whether Senator Stephen Conroy has indeed breached his own tender requirements or not, and whether Bruce Billson is correct or not, the Federal Government does appear to have been needlessly rushing the tender proposal process for the National Broadband Network on political grounds.

Given that the network is of national importance for decades to come, the 12 week extension for the RFP process is a good policy for the new Communications Minister and we can only hope it will result in a national broadband network that delivers data at 100Mbps speeds, not 12Mbps speeds, at prices we can all afford.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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