SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Can I start by congratulating all those in the press gallery responsible for a great event last night at the Midwinter Ball and I hope that my colleagues today will speak perhaps in slightly softer tones in recognition of some of the sore heads that may exist around the gallery.
To more serious matters, yesterday Telstra revealed the depth and seriousness of their issues around asbestos related to NBN [National Broadband Network] preparations and the depth and seriousness of their response. The Government, through Senator Conroy, also tabled some information in the Senate that demonstrated it’s not just Telstra that has an asbestos problem but NBN Co clearly has an asbestos problem as well. Senator Conroy’s information revealed that NBN Co is now engaging specialist asbestos contractors to do work they had previously expected their primary ‘tier one’ contractors to undertake. This is obviously an admission by NBN Co that the contracts they had in place and the policies they had in place to start with were inadequate when it came to dealing with asbestos.
It’s time we now get, at the earliest possible opportunity, a detailed response from Senator Conroy about what it is the asbestos issues will mean to the cost and timing of delivery of the NBN. Clearly, engaging additional contractors comes with additional costs. Clearly, stopping preparation on pits will come with time delays. This is a project that has already been beset with huge cost overruns and with huge delays in terms of meeting its deliverables. Today would be a great day for Senator Conroy to come clean and tell us as much as he possibly can about the delays and the costs and the impacts on the NBN itself around these asbestos issues.
JOURNALIST: This could very well be your problem within three months. Even with fibre-to-the-node, the Coalition will have to dig up a number of pits – perhaps not as many – so couldn’t you be facing some more delays as well with the rollout of your policy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Coalition knows that we’re going to inherit a basket case when it comes to the NBN – a bloated bureaucracy, an expensive project, one that clearly has been poorly managed and, as Malcolm Turnbull has said time and time again, if you were going to start a project like this, the last place you would want to start from is where we will find it when we, if we, win government. That said, one of the benefits, as you acknowledged in your question, of our proposal is that less of the legacy infrastructure has to be disturbed, so there will clearly be less of an issue surrounding asbestos, but we go in with our eyes wide open knowing that, if we’re successful and if we have to deal with these issues, we’ll have to get all of these contractual issues sorted out from day one. The shame is that Stephen Conroy’s been talking about building an NBN since before this Labor Government was elected six years ago. He’s failed to get the contractual issues right. He’s failed to meet his objectives. He’s failed to stay within his budget.
JOURNALIST: On Mike Quigley’s future, there’s been a lot of talk about whether he will stay as your CEO, the comments from Malcolm Turnbull haven’t been particularly glowing, so he’s on notice, he won’t keep his job if the Coalition do win come September?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: They’re hypothetical matters and they’re matters that the NBN Co board in particular will deal with. There’s been plenty of speculation already that Mike Quigley lacks the confidence of the NBN Co board, that the board has in fact allegedly approached the Minister and the Government to have Mike Quigley removed, and Senator Conroy has notably refused to deny those allegations, so the real question there is: does even the current board, under the Labor Government, have confidence in the CEO who’s running the NBN?