news Malcolm Turnbull has appeared to make a number of incorrect statements over the past week regarding the Federal Government’s now defunct mandatory Internet filtering policy, as the Shadow Communications Minister and other senior Coalition figures continues to make inaccurate statements in the communications portfolio.
Last week, almost five years after the current Labor Federal Government starting trying to force its controversial mandatory Internet filter policy on an extremely unwilling Australian population, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy formally dumped the policy in favour of a much more limited system already in place at Telstra and Optus. The move was welcomed by most in Australia’s technology sector, although some retain concerns about the implementation of the new, more limited scheme.
Over the past week, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has conducted a number of interviews and issued statements about the Government’s changed policy. In general, Turnbull’s approach has been to note that the mandatory filter project was always a bad idea that wouldn’t meet its policy aims.
“It was bad for freedom, it was bad for freedom of speech and peoples’ freedom to use the Internet,” Turnbull said in a doorstop interview in Adelaide on Friday. “It was going to slow the Internet. But above all, it was going to create a false sense of security among parents because his scheme would not be effective in stopping material about child pornography and other dangerous material being available online. It would have encourage parents to think the Government was making it all safe when it wasn’t.”
In addition, Turnbull heavily criticised Conroy for what he saw as a heavy-handed approach that the Labor Senator has taken with the telecommunications sector in general over the past five years in which he has been Communications Minister.
“The fact of the matter is this: The only reason he is not proceeding with it is because he knows he cannot get it through the Parliament,” Turnbull said of Conroy’s filter backdown. “This is a telecommunications minister who is drunk with power. And you don’t have to take my word for it – take his. He has said and I repeat it. He said, I am so powerful that if I command telecoms executives to wear red underpants on their heads they will do so. That is how arrogant Stephen Conroy is.”
“That is his approach to the industry. And everyone in the media industry should be very, very concerned about the constant grab for power. Whether it’s regulating newspapers, acquiring more power over the electronic media – always he’s seeking to acquire more control and he’s been rebuffed on this occasion.”
In general, Turnbull’s statements with regard to the filter appeared to be accurate (such as his statement that the Federal Government does not have the support in the Senate to get its filter legislation through the Parliament), or a matter of opinion — such as whether Conroy has been too heavy-handed in his approach to overseeing the telecommunications sector. In this last case opinions in the industry itself differ on whether Conroy’s approach has been appropriate or not.
However, in several statements, Turnbull did make several misrepresentations with respect to the filter policy in general and the Coalition’s approach to it.
For example, in his doorstop interview in Adelaide, Turnbull said with respect to the mandatory Internet filter: ” … for five years we’ve been saying: ‘This won’t work, it shouldn’t be put in place. We’ve got to give parents the tools to be more vigilant to enable them to take responsibility.” Turnbull added: “Well I’m not complaining. I’m pleased that they’ve done it. But it just demonstrates what an incompetent Government it is, that it’s taken them five years to realise that their scheme won’t work. And five years to realise that they haven’t got the numbers to get it through the Parliament.”
However, in actual fact the Coalition has only spoken in public against the mandatory Internet filter policy for about two and a half years. Senior Coalition figures repeatedly refused to comment on the policy — despite widespread public opposition to it — until March 2010, when Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey first publicly came out against the policy, as the first senior Coalition figure to do so. In August 2010, Hockey revealed for the first time that the Coalition would vote in the Senate against any legislation attempting to introduce the filter.
That same month, Turnbull — at that stage only an MP, as he had not yet been appointed Shadow Communications Minister — gave his first major statement on the filter at a forum he held in his electorate to discuss the matter with the public. That occasion was also one of the first times that fellow Liberal MP and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher commented on the filter policy.
In his comments last week, Turnbull also alleged that the Federal Government’s new, more limited filtering policy (based on a list of child abuse sites supplied by international policing agency Interpol) was actually Coalition policy and nothing new.
Responding to a question as to whether the Coalition would support Conroy’s new, more limited filter policy, Turnbull stated: “The blacklist proposal? That’s always been our policy and indeed there’s nothing new in it. Indeed this has been going on for years. The police have been providing details of sites that should be blocked … Look there is nothing new. What Senator Conroy has announced today is not a new initiative. It is completely consistent with existing practice and existing legislation.” Turnbull also repeated this claim in an interview with The Australian newspaper.
However, in this case Turnbull is also incorrect. The concept of using DNS records to block a list of ‘worst of the worst’ child abuse sites is not a current Coalition policy; it was first proposed by Conroy in July 2010 as a rough concept, as an intermediate step while the wider filter policy was examined in detail as part of a review of classification guidelines. It was then independently expanded into the format which became Labor policy last week by the Internet Industry Association in early 2011, and implemented by Telstra and Optus in mid-2011. Senior Coalition figures have commented very little on that limited filter policy since that date.
In addition, Turnbull is also incorrect in his statement that the Government’s new filter approach is consistent with existent practice and existing legislation. In fact, as organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs have pointed out, the legislative framework for the new Interpol filter (Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act) has not been used in that manner previously; and may not be consistent with the aims of the legislation. Apart from Telstra and Optus, a number of Australia’s major ISPs — including iiNet, Internode, Exetel and TPG, have expressed concerns about the Interpol filter scheme for this and other reasons.
Turnbull isn’t the only figure to have misspoken on the Internet filter this year. In February, for example, Conroy himself appeared to consciously tell a factual inaccuracy with respect to the implementation status of the mandatory filter at that time, stating that Telstra and Optus had implemented the mandatory filtering system, when they had only implemented a drastically reduced voluntary version. In addition, Conroy has not yet responded to a list of questions sent to his office regarding basic aspects of the new limited filtering scheme.
The news comes as senior Coalition figures continue to make misstatements in the communications portfolio in general.
For example, several weeks ago Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne claimed that no customers had been connected to Labor’s National Broadband Network at speeds of 100Mbps, despite evidence being provided to the contrary. In another example, several weeks ago Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey repeated several times an inaccurate claim that the NBN’s funding could be treated as an expense in the Federal Budget, despite the fact that accounting standards require it to be treated as a capital investment. As Pyne did, Hockey’s office similarly declined to retract the statement, claiming despite evidence provided to the contrary that it was the Shadow Treasurer’s view that his statement was correct.
Hockey’s comments come as the latest in a long line of inaccurate and misleading statements the Shadow Treasurer has made about the NBN project. Earlier last month, for example, Hockey claimed the National Broadband Network could cost as much as $100 billion to build, despite the company’s own estimates showing that it will require around $37 billion of capital injection from the Government and eventually make a return, paying back the investment with some profit on top. In June, in another example, Hockey inaccurately claimed that 4G mobile broadband had the potential to be “far superior” to the fibre technology of the NBN.
Similarly, several months ago, speaking on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press program, Nationals Leader Warren Truss made a number of major factually inaccurate statements about the project, as detailed in this article by Delimiter at the time. In addition, Truss had previously made a number of inaccurate statements about the NBN over the past several months.
In mid-May, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott misrepresented the cost of connecting to the NBN, in comments which the Government claimed represented a deliberate attempt to mislead the Australian public on the issue. Turnbull similarly made a number of factually incorrect statements on the NBN throughout March, and in January Abbott got quite a few facts about the NBN wrong in a radio interview.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull