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Australia’s marathon two-month election campaign was looking a little dull until the Australian federal police raided the offices of a Labor Party opposition front-bencher over leaked documents relating to the controversial National Broadband Network (NBN).
The move was political dynamite in a long double-dissolution election campaign that will not see voters at the polls until 2 July.
The NBN is a project created under the former Labor government to upgrade the country’s broadband infrastructure. The network was to have comprised more than 90% fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) connections.
The current coalition government, which won power in 2013, modified the NBN to be a mix of FTTP, fibre-to-the-node and existing copper-to-the-premise and HFC networks that were rolled out by local telcos Telstra and Optus in the mid-1990s.
The coalition claimed its plan would see the NBN delivered much sooner and more cheaply, albeit without the super high speeds and future-proofing inherent in a mostly FTTP roll-out.
Critics have pointed to the potential expense and complexity of building and maintaining multiple network technologies in the coalition’s NBN plan and in February, the government was rocked by a series of reports based on documents leaked from government-owned network builder NBN Co.
The leaked internal progress report revealed that NBN was about 60,000 connections behind for the FTTN portion of the network in February. Electricity utilities were struggling to get power to some nodes in the FTTN section of the NBN.
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Also, the cost per connection for each FTTN premise was coming in at more than A$200 above the target price of A$1,114 per premise.
At the time, the coalition government denied that the NBN was behind schedule or subject to cost blowouts.
Federal police raided the offices of Labor Senator Stephen Conroy last Thursday, as well as the house of a Labor Party staffer after being called in six months ago by NBN Co to investigate the leaks. Conroy, the communications minister in the former Labor government, was responsible for the initial, fibre-heavy NBN plan.
An NBN employee with the powers of a special constable accompanied police on the raid, photographed documents and sent them to NBN Co. The photos were later destroyed after protests from Labor.
Turnbull backed Fifield, telling reporters it was “entirely appropriate” for the minister not to tell him about the police investigation.
“That is a matter of judgement for him,” said Turnbull.
Meanwhile, Conroy has claimed parliamentary privilege over the seized documents, which have now been sealed by the federal police. Police cannot analyse the documents until the Senate rules whether parliamentary privilege applies, which is likely to happen after the election.
Following the raids, two NBN Co employees were suspended over alleged involvement in leaking the documents. ......................................