Australia's Senate demands access to NBN business case that doesn't exist

Upper house, upper case and on the outer limits of political stunts

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Australia's Senate has voted on an "order for the production of documents" demanding access to "a complete and unredacted copy of the NBN Corporate Plan 2015-18," plus "a complete and unredacted copy" of the 2014-2017 plan and an unredacted copy of the NBN Co Strategic Review.

The motion (PDF) seeking the order was moved by senator Jenny McAllister, but the prime mover here is the nation's shadow comms minister Jason Clare, who thunders that the nation needs to know when and at what cost nbnTM, the company charged with building Australia's national broadband network (NBN), will finish building the network.

Fine sentiments, but there's just one small problem: the 2015-2018 Corporate Plan doesn't exist. As is made abundantly clear in Hansard from a recent Senate Estimates hearing (PDF), the document is a work in progress.

nbnTM, formerly known as NBN Co, does publish ”Corporate Plans”, the most recent of which emerged in November 2014.

That document's 49th page, under the heading “9.4 Financial Assumptions for FY2016 and FY2017” offers AU$41bn as “total peak funding”. On page 11, under the heading “5 NBN Co's Strategic Direction”, that nbnTM has a goal of ensuring “All homes, businesses and communities across Australia can access high-speed broadband” by 2020.

Those numbers are, to be fair, at least seven months old and Clare's office contends the 14-17 Corporate Plan was cut and pasted from the Strategic Review so the numbers are even older. So perhaps it is in the public interest for an update. Assuming, of course, that the public isn't tuning in to nbnTM's quarterly financial reports or strategic reviews.

Clare and the Labor Party therefore look to be chasing two things.

The first, presumably contained in the 2015-2018 Corporate Plan, is the current cost estimate for completing the NBN.

The second is evidence the government was doctrinaire in its conclusion that a multi-technology mix (MTM) is the best way for nbnTM to build the NBN. Australia's previous government was doctrinaire, insisting that fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) was the only carriage medium it would sanction.

The current government campaigned using numbers suggesting an all-FTPP NBN build would cost close to AU$100bn and make it unlikely nbnTM would ever become profitable or a saleable asset.

Several leaks, and new rollouts around the world, have since suggested that FTTP could be done for less than the assumptions that led to the adoption of the MTM plan.

Proving that the MTM was a politically-motivated choice would be a political prize and might just be what Clare's after. His statement about the motion quotes several past Turnbull utterances about his intention to operate nbnTM with maximum transparency and suggests the minister may not have delivered on those promises.

Clare might be onto something with this line of inquiry because nbnTM has not responded convincingly when confronted by evidence that FTTP build prices have fallen, labelling its own study of FTTP installation costs in the Melbourne suburb of Melton as “unrepresentative”.

Will this motion produce a smoking gun that takes down Turnbull and MTM? Vulture South suspects not: there's lots of procedural wriggle room that means the government can use commercial confidentiality to block the document release. Or it can just brazen it out.

This order is therefore almost certainly a political stunt and/or fishing trip. But as any angler knows, once the bait goes into the water there's no telling what will rise up for a nibble. ®

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