By LAURIE PATTON | 6 April 2018
With complaints about the NBN’s shonky and inadequate service at an all-time high, and after having made compromises that have “rolled his stomach”, NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow has decided to jump this sinking ship two years before the project’s completion.
Morrow’s tenure in charge of the operation has – to say the least – been turbulent, with the belligerent American being happy to defame and disparage his critics. So long as it’s under the cloak of Parliamentary Privilege.
Early in 2017, the head of NBN Co, Bill Morrow was being questioned at a Senate Estimates hearing. Asked by then Greens Scott Ludlam about his organisation’s habit of blocking people who make unkind comments about his inferior broadband network on social media, Mr Morrow had the first of two “brain farts” in which he gratuitously attacked Internet Australia.
It was late at night and yet, within minutes, I started receiving text messages from people telling me about his performance. On reviewing Hansard transcript the next day I discovered I’d been named as having been “blocked”. Trouble was, I hadn’t been and nor had Internet Australia.
A couple of months later, Mr Morrow had his second brain fart at a Senate Estimates hearing. This time he accused me of much worse.
On both occasions, the CEO of a government-owned enterprise had made false and defamatory remarks about Internet Australia and me under the cloak of Parliamentary Privilege. My right of reply (which may be viewed here) has been published by the Senate Select Committee on Environment and Communications and, of course, also has privilege.
In this exchange, as reported in Hansard (p.75), Mr Morrow’s attack was particularly vicious:
Senator Ludlam: Let us go to the merits of some of the concerns that they have raised rather than attacking the conduct. What about the merits of the issues that they have raised about NBN? Nothing?
Mr Morrow: No. He has no merits. He lies about everything he puts on there. He fabricates things, without fact. He has no knowledge. He has never worked in the telecom industry. He has no understanding of the technology at all. What would you want us to do?
Had he made his comments outside Parliament, Internet Australia and I would obviously have been able to pursue a clear case of defamation.
‘My reply to those comments made by Mr Morrow is a denial and a repudiation. I have access to a range of extremely well-qualified engineers and technicians on whom I call for the technical information and background that is used by me on Internet Australia’s behalf. The comments that I have made on Internet Australia’s behalf are factual and relevant.’
Internet Australia then called on the Government to demand Mr Morrow apologise for and retract his false and defamatory remarks. Internet Australia’s then chair, Anne Hurley, who had herself been subjected to personal attacks by NBN, said she believed it was time the government put a leash on NBN Co and its CEO.
Ms Hurley stated publicly:
“Rather than deal with the very real and increasing complaints about the product, Mr Morrow and his team of PR spinners would prefer to attack people making genuine and evidence-based calls for change.”
For my part, I say there’s no excuse for the head of a government enterprise to be allowed to use parliamentary privilege to attack people simply because they draw attention to serious issues — in this case, the questionable technology choices being pursued by NBN Co, and the negative economic and social consequences for Australia.
In my opinion, failing an apology and retraction, Mr Morrow should have been sacked.
I passionately believe Australia needs a 21st Century NBN if we are to maintain our place as one of the most advanced and prosperous nations in the G20. On Internet Australia’s behalf and on behalf of all internet users, I merely sought to draw attention to obvious flaws in the current NBN strategy – flaws that are increasingly reflected in customer complaints – and to provide solutions based on expert advice.
I raised my concerns directly with the Prime Minister and with the Leader of the Opposition. Each has listened respectfully to what I’ve had to say. On the other hand, Mr Morrow thought it appropriate to use Parliamentary Privilege to attack me and the board of Internet Australia rather than heed what we, and many other respected people and organisations, are saying.
This is also from Hansard (p.75) and is included in my right of reply to Mr Morrow’s comments:
Senator Ludlum: … you did go in pretty hard on Mr Patton. We checked back in and discovered that actually he was not one of the people that had been blocked at the time [as Mr Morrow had stated].
And this from my reply:
My reply is that Senator Ludlam is correct and I was not blocked at the time of the first abuse of Parliamentary Privilege. Mr Morrow, therefore, gave false evidence on the earlier occasion…
I also respectfully request that Mr Morrow be required to unreservedly apologise to me and to retract his comments or else be appropriately dealt with by the Senate for his blatant abuse of Parliamentary Privilege on two occasions.
I also wrote to Prime Minister Turnbull asking him to intervene, insisting on a retraction and apology from Mr Morrow.
Mr Morrow never apologised.
In order to provide the context in which the debate about the NBN is being conducted, these are some salient points:
- According to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, customer complaints about the NBN have doubled in the past 12 months;
- Over the last three years, Australia has fallen from 30th to around 50th on the industry recognised Akamai global speed rankings;
- 80 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll said they didn’t believe the NBN, in its current form, will meet Australia’s future needs;
- Internet Australia’s globally recognised experts say the fibre to the node (FTTN) network will need to be replaced within ten to 15 years of completion. This has not been budgeted for by NBN Co;
- Approximately 25-40 per cent of premises will be provided with FTTN, which means far lower speeds than the more fortunate NBN customers with a fibre-based service. They will be condemned to be second class digital citizens; and
- Mr Morrow has told Senate Estimates that people with FTTN who want to have the faster speeds, which are available to others, will have to pay for their own upgrade. Some quotes from NBN Co for upgrades have been in the six figures.
(Laurie Patton was CEO/ Executive Director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users, from 2014 to 2017. This article first appeared in “Independent Australia“.)