opinion There are very good reasons to suspect that Stephen Conroy’s reign of fire and blood as Australia’s Communications Minister is gradually coming to an end; with the nation to receive new talent in this crucial portfolio either at the next Federal Election — or even substantially before it.
Does the above statement shock you? Well it might. After all, Australians have had a long time to get used to Stephen Conroy’s face as our national Communications Minister on television screens, in newspapers and in online media. The Labor Senator has been nothing if not high-profile, and the at times over the past four years has seemed one of the only constants in a rapidly changing telco sector.
However, there are a number of indications that Conroy may shortly be on his way out of the portfolio.
The first and most obvious case for Conroy’s departure from the communications scene is the likely victory of the Coalition at the next Federal Election, whenever that may be. With the Gillard Government continuing to suffer woeful polling results, there seems little doubt that Tony Abbott’s team will easily be able to capitalise on Labor’s many mistakes — from the knifing of Kevin07 to the carbon tax to the bungled refugee situation — to win Government at the next poll. While the most likely scenario is that this next election will occur on schedule in 2013, the Government still holds power by only the slimmest of margins — two seats — and has always been only a couple of by-elections or independent defections away from losing its grip.
However, there are other reasons to take a harder look at Conroy’s position at the moment.
For starters, over the past six months we’ve witnessed a marked decrease in Conroy’s visibility in the portfolio. The Minister has barely held any press conferences, has given only a couple of notable speeches and has made just a handful of controversial off-the cuff comments. What press releases he has issued in general have largely been run of the mill announcements in areas such as digital television, and mostly prepared in mass-produced style by his department.
I could ask you to trust me on this (as I follow the Minister obsessively), but you can always also take a gander at his media centre for yourself. Read his speeches, check out his statements and ask yourself: What has Conroy been doing for the past six months in his portfolio? The answer: Not much.
Conroy’s role in the major events in his portfolio over that period — the media enquiry, for example, or the various NBN-related launches — has turned out repeatedly to be relatively minor, with the Minister’s involvement quickly dropping out of the public radar as players such as Telstra, NBN Co and various others have taken over the stage.
Likewise, the Minister’s parliamentary appearances have also been lacklustre. In Senate Estimates mid-way through October, he appeared bored with the proceedings, answering few questions but merely directing half-hearted jabs at old enemies such as Barnaby Joyce and Simon Birmingham. The fiery Senate debates in the chamber which we have come to be appalled by over the years have been few and far between.
“I have been doing estimates for 15 years,” Conroy told neophyte Greens senator Larissa Waters at one point.
Now, some of this is because most of Conroy’s policy aims for the communications portfolio have been achieved over the past term and a half since Kevin Rudd swept Labor to power in November 2007. Over that period, Conroy has, after all, successfully set up an entire National Broadband Network superstructure, implemented radical structural reform and new consumer safeguards in the telecommunications sector, planted a massive wedgeload of new legislation, orchestrated Australia’s digital television switchover and even made some headway with Labor’s unpopular Internet filtering scheme (a watered down version has already gone live at Telstra and Optus) … all while fighting a series of ferocious political, regulatory and industry-related battles and catching up on the odd bit of football.
Four years of that is definitely enough to leave anyone exhausted — and Conroy’s no longer a young man. At the age of 48 and with a feisty five-year-old daughter to take care of … we sometimes wonder how Conroy has managed the gargantuan task he’s had since 2007. But manage it, he has.
But now most of that is over.
Almost all of the battles Conroy has fought over the past half-decade are now in other people’s hands. NBN Co, Telstra and the ACCC are involved in a complex dance for the future of Australian broadband, his legislation is no longer controversial, his department’s programs are largely on track and the Internet filter, although still officially government policy, has been put out to pasture through a classification review. And Conroy’s daughter is even likely in school at this point.
If I was Stephen Conroy, right now, I’d be wondering what I would do with my time. A certain calm has descended on the good senator’s life … and there is likely no real storm to come. Conroy is able, for the next year, to look forward to a fairly relaxed period watching the NBN slowly grow and idly wondering what will become of the project following the next election.
This much is apparent.
However, even the most naive Canberra watcher knows that politics doesn’t work like that. Politics is nothing if not ferocious, especially in the Federal arena. If you’re not active, then you’re inactive and ripe to become a target.
If you trace Conroy’s career from his appointment to the Senate in 1996, what you’ll find is that the Minister has been continually active throughout that period. He quickly took a leading role two years after his ascension, in 1998 becoming deputy leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and holding Shadow Ministry roles from that point on.
Conroy — like a younger version of Steve Jobs, complete with spectacles and closely cropped greying hair — thrives on controversy, new projects, energetic endeavours and vitriolic, tense exchanges. I’ve never seen the Minister back down from a challenge, and he seldom approaches things diplomatically or patiently. His is a full-on personality. A restless energy animates his frame and leads him into furious political exchanges, punctuated by his iron wit.
He has moments of vagueness too — remember the “spams and scams coming through the portal”? And a lack of deep technical understanding has plagued him over his career. But he is not ready to retire — and that means he will right now be wondering: What next?
What’s next for Conroy, as we satirically suggested before the 2010 Federal Election, is a shift into a different portfolio.
Conroy has been Australia’s first Communications Minister to truly master the portfolio, bending the entire telecommunications sector to his will and reshaping it with a steadfast scalpel. But now he must find another area to reshape anew.
With no cabinet reshuffle having taken place since the 2010 election, it’s high time Prime Minister Gillard looked at shifting the chairs around, and it’s a good time to do so — giving a fresh set of ministers a crack at governing and Labor its last chance to convince the Australian public that it’s worth a third term before the 2013 election rolls around.
It would be appropriate in such a reshuffle for Gillard to reward Conroy — one of her only truly successful ministers — with a portfolio seen as more prestigious — finance and deregulation.
Finance is currently held by Penny Wong, who won it after the retirement of Lindsay Tanner in September 2010. But Wong’s performance in the portfolio has been nothing short of anaemic. With a background in arts, law and the union movement, Wong probably didn’t understand much of the portfolio to start with, and has probably by now become what Sir Humphrey Appleby would refer to as “house-trained”.
Conroy, on the other hand, with his economics degree and history in the financial services and corporate governance shadow ministry, as well as his extensively regulatory experience dealing with the telco sector, is a natural fit for finance, and would likely bring its bureaucrats to heel as he has the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.
Gillard would then be able to parachute a relatively young Minister into the now-mature communications portfolio, giving them the chance to hold the wheel for a year or so and gain some experience in a safe manner before Labor faces electoral defeat in 2013.
Of course, Labor is nothing if not a fairly obstinate political party, stuck in its ways, and Gillard may believe that Conroy has already been rewarded enough through his minor promotion to “Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity” following the 2010 election. The PM may retain Conroy’s services in Communications, merely to ensure the portfolio remains on track.
But we hope not.
New blood for Communications, and fresh fodder for Conroy’s mental grinder, is the prescription which we’d give Gillard for the next year. The alternative is to leave an increasingly stale but capable Minister in a portfolio which he has mastered and is obviously growing bored with.
Attack dogs like Conroy can’t be kept in a kennel for too long. Otherwise, they start champing at the bit.