Perfidy or incompetence on NBN?

Unquestionably murky Alcatel-Lucent links appear to represent yet another reason for Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to be removed as chief NBN buffoon.

Mike Quigley.
Mike Quigley.

On the scale of Labor ineptitude under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the continuing incompetence or disingenuousness (or both) of Conroy may be dwarfed, but nevertheless continues to astonish.

It is simply not credible for the Minister to claim that he was unaware of the US corruption investigation into French telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent, two former senior executives of which now hold key positions in the National Broadband Network quango, NBN Co Limited.

A report in Today’s Australian newspaper said: ‘Mr [Jean-Pascal] Beaufret, now chief financial officer of NBN Co, had been chief financial officer at Alcatel and then Alcatel-Lucent between 2001 and 2007. Mr [Mike] Quigley, executive chairman of NBN Co, was appointed president and chief operating officer of Alcatel in 2005.’[1]

If, as the US Securities and Exchange Commission has found, Alcatel-Lucent was guilty of paying South American and Asian organisations $8 million in bribes to gain business between 2001 and 2006, it is inconceivable that Messrs. Beaufret and Quigley were unaware of transactions of such magnitude, as they now claim. How could the chief financial officer miss these transactions, and the CEO be unaware? Gross incompetence, or complicity. Both good reasons for not appointing these men.

Moreover, Conroy’s vetting process in appointing both men to senior positions in NBN Co was either so amateurishly deficient that he should be forced to resign immediately from any ministerial position for gross incompetence, or he is now willfully lying about not being aware of the investigation, and the absolute certainty that executives of Quigley’s and Beaufret’s seniority within Alcatel-Lucent could not have been at least aware of the bribes, if not directly complicit in approving them.

The matter becomes even more perplexing given the award of a $70 million contract by NBN to Alcatel-Lucent at around the same time as the appointments were made. A contract the Australian suggests could be worth as much as $1.5 billion over the longer term.

It is legitimate to ask why Senator Conroy is willing and able to redistribute such large sums of Australian taxpayer funds to Alcatel-Lucent and its former senior executives. Perhaps the answer to that question will have to wait until it is known what Conroy will do for a living once his political career implodes, as it inevitably will. However, by that time it might be far too late to point to any cushy appointment to Alcatel-Lucent or one of its associates as evidence of inappropriate largesse in the here and now.

Underlying this last observation is a realistic apprehension that politics has ever been subject to ensuring sinecures for retiring or just unsuccessful politicians. And along the same lines, it has ever been the case that the cost of doing business in some parts of the world involves ‘patronage’ of the kind commonly referred to as bribes in the Western world.

Jean-Pascal Beaufret.
Jean-Pascal Beaufret.

I would argue, however, that a commercial decision to grease palms with private funds is entirely different to a ministerial decision to direct public funds in a conspicuously one-sided direction.

Coming from a government that has vigorously resisted full disclosure of all financial dealings by NBN Co, any decisions to channel vast sums of taxpayer funds in particular directions inevitably beg questions about the potential for ‘patronage’ where none should exist.

There are only three possible conclusions to be drawn: 1)Everything Conroy has done is completely above board and the insistence on secrecy and ignorance about potential conflicts of interest are to be countenanced as the cost of government doing business; 2) Conroy is a bungling incompetent being taken advantage of by unscrupulous advisors and their paymasters; or 3) Conroy is willfully flouting all accountability and public interest tests for reasons yet unknown.

It is entirely congruent to imagine Conroy as an incompetent buffoon without necessarily having ulterior motives, but under all three circumstances listed above, I think Australia’s public interest would be best served by removing Conroy from the equation, and opening up the NBN Co to far greater public scrutiny and accountability than the present government has been willing to countenance, again for reasons yet unknown.

Reference

[1] Klan, Anthony, (2011). ‘NBN chiefs silent on scandal at former employer – and Stephen Conroy didn’t ask’. The Australian, 29 April, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/investigations/nbn-chiefs-silent-on-scandal-at-former-employer-and-conroy-didnt-ask/story-fn8p9s2m-1226046571044, accessed 29 April 2011.

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