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Labor, PM's office call out NBN chair for getting political

The NBN has a tumultuous history, drawing criticism from virtually anyone with a political skin in the game. But now the chair of the company behind the project has been called out for jumping into the fray.

NBN

Less than three weeks out from the Federal election, the war of words over the National Broadband Network is getting fiery.

NBN chair Ziggy Switkowski has been rebuked for his handling of alleged leaks at the company, after he penned an open letter in The Sydney Morning Herald describing the "theft" of confidential company documents as "inexcusable" and "corrosive."

It's not the first time the NBN has been dragged into the political quagmire. Since it was first mooted by Labor in the lead up to the 2007 election, the nation's biggest infrastructure project has faced attacks from both sides of politics over delays, cost blowouts and the mismanagement of the network rollout.

Switkowski's empassioned opinion piece appeared in the SMH on May 28, 2016, just over a week after Labor offices were raided in an attempt to find the source of leaks that saw internal documents shared with the media.

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NBN chair Ziggy Switkowski.

Andrew Campbell/NBN

But Switkowski has now been called out for voicing his opinions so publicly and politicising his position at NBN during an election period.

An internal letter has revealed that both the Government and Opposition have charged the NBN chair with breaking Caretaker Conventions that govern the behaviour of public servants.

The Australian Government enters Caretaker mode before every election to ensure that the business of running the country continues, even as Australians prepare to go to the polls. But during this period, public servants (including those working for Commonwealth-owned companies like NBN) are under strict instructions to remain "apolitical."

A letter from the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Martin Parkinson, has revealed that Switkowski was "strongly" warned against publishing the op-ed in the SMH.

Writing to Labor MP and Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke, who first raised the issue with PM&C, Parkinson said Switkowski's actions were "not consistent with the established practices associated with the Caretaker Conventions."

Switkowski certainly made his views on NBN leaks and allegations of "cost blowouts" well known in his May letter, slamming it as a campaign of "political rumourtrage."

"When dozens of confidential company documents are stolen, this is theft," he wrote in the op-ed. "When they are the basis of media headlines and partisan attacks, they wrongly tarnish our reputation, demoralise our workforce, distract the executive, and raise doubts where there is little basis for concern."

Switkowski said NBN was open about its operations, including rollout plans and costs, and was subject to vigorous public scrutiny. However, he noted that all companies hold commercially sensitive information, and that had leaks occurred elsewhere, they would have been "illegal."

He also shot down claims that the leaks were the actions of "whistleblowers," saying that NBN was "duty bound" to report the ongoing theft, as he described it, to the Australian Federal Police.

"If an employee has strong personal conviction unsupportive of a company's strategy, they can argue their case with management or resign. They cannot give voice to their preferred ideology by passing on stolen documents," he said.

NBN is standing by these words today, with the company saying in a statement that Switkowski's opinion piece "addressed misleading claims to restore the trust of its 5000 employees."

"Any accusation that the company's staff, management, its board and (by implication) its shareholder departments have conspired to keep large cost increases secret from the Australian people is not only plainly and demonstrably false, but is a serious accusation in light of the Corporations act," the statement read.

"This is obviously not acceptable and the opinion piece addressed the allegations in a manner commensurate with the mode in which they were made; that is, publicly in the national media."