opinion I had a moment of deja vu while listening to Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith’s speech at the annual conference of the Australian Telecommunications Users Group last Friday morning.
Four years ago I was sitting at the exact same event, listening to another Shadow Communications Minister speak. I refer, of course, to Stephen Conroy, who has since had the ‘shadow’ removed from his title and now leads Australia’s technology and telecommunications policy portfolio.
At the time, then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan was on top of her game. It would be a year and half until Kevin Rudd would sweep John Howard from power, and Conroy was lost in the quagmire of fruitless opposition to a Government that, it seemed, could get re-elected no matter how many wrongs it committed.
Four years ago, Conroy’s speech did not go down well.
As I chronicled at the time, despite the fact that Conroy spoke directly after Coonan, who had just announced a major new policy to fund a bush broadband network (does this sound familiar?), the Shadow Communications Minister did little to rebut her speech or engage with the relevant issues.
At the time, I thought Conroy’s speech was pretty awful, and that he had little chance of really taking Coonan on in the portfolio.
A key indicator of Conroy’s lack of success that day was that not a single member of the audience wanted to ask him a question about his policies … Coonan, on the other hand, was mobbed.
Let me say this plainly. Smith’s speech last Friday was even worse than the one Conroy delivered four years ago.
In my opinion, although Conroy does not have the solid intellectual grasp of the complexity of the issues in the telecommunications industry that Coonan did during her tenure, he does have drive, energy, ambition, and perhaps most importantly, a solid political will to make change in his portfolio.
Smith (pictured) gave every indication on Friday that he does not appear to have either the drive to change the telecommunications landscape, the will to hold Conroy to account in any serious manner, or sufficient understanding of the issues involved to engage with an audience about them.
Conroy’s shadow spent the majority of his speech informing the audience — composed of technology professionals and industry insiders — about the broad history of the industry.
He went into such mundane details as why he thought the fax machine was “earth-shattering” when it was first launched and how he was one of the first people to buy a brick-sized mobile phone when they first went on sale in the early 1990’s.
Conroy is currently the driving force behind the biggest shake-up of Australia’s telecommunications industry since de-regulation.
He is the architect of the unpopular internet filtering project, and has repeatedly avoided disclosing key documents at the heart of his reform agenda such as the NBN implementation study and the panel of experts’ report into the first, failed $4.7 billion NBN tender.
In short, although most in the telecommunications industry would agree Conroy is driving needed change … our fearless Communications Minister’s record is far from squeaky clean.
Yet Smith did not substantively address any of these areas, instead choosing to focus on opposition to changes to the Do Not Call Register.
This would have been bad enough. But it was the tone of the Shadow Communications Minister’s speech that was really grating. Smith spoke slowly. Very slowly. Slowly enough that you could literally type each word as he was uttering them.
As a journalist I have attended thousands of presentations, speeches and debates, and rarely have I encountered a speaker as stultifyingly boring as Smith.
As a Communications Minister I would rank Conroy about on par with Coonan — he has less deep understanding, but more political power and will. Conroy’s former shadow Nick Minchin is at about the same level, as his ongoing Senate debates with Conroy display to great effect.
However, Smith is two or three ranks down.
For the rest of this year, I predict that Conroy will be able to daily hand Smith the biggest insult that one political operator can give another. In short, he will be able to safely ignore him.
Not for Smith, the saving NBN policy that Conroy pulled out of his hat and rode all the way to take his present ministership after the last election. Not for Smith, the wide-ranging legislative change that will re-shape Australia’s telecommunications industry and split Telstra squarely in half.
Unless Smith gets a new speechwriter, a new image and some political will to tackle his opposite, the Shadow Communications Minister’s next several years will go down as nothing more than a footnote to the rein of King Conroy.
Image credit: Office of Tony Smith