Conroy vs Lundy: A 14-year comparison study


Alert: A correction was made to this article. It incorrectly implied that Kate Lundy was Shadow Communications Minister from 2001 through 2004. In fact, Lundy was Shadow Information Technology Minister (among other roles in Sport and the Arts). Lindsay Tanner was Shadow Communications Minister from 2001 through 2004.

opinion In an insightful commentary posted late yesterday, iTnews editor Brett Winterford posed the question of whether Labor backbencher Kate Lundy would make a better Communications Minister than incumbent Stephen Conroy.

The blunt answer to that question is yes.

But it’s not enough to simply say that Lundy understands the technology portfolio better and leave it at that. It’s important to look back at their history since the pair both joined the Senate in 1996 to learn why one has maintained a strong reputation in Australia’s technology sector while the other is having theirs torn further into shreds every day.

And why, despite this, Lundy is unlikely to win back the portfolio any time soon.

Right from the start of her tenure in the Senate, Lundy has demonstrated a strong commitment to the technology sector. In the 14 years since 1996 (as her website proudly states and as is evident from her parliamentary record), Lundy has participated in every Senate inquiry relating to telecommunications and information technology that has been held.

As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has discovered since taking his own Senate chair in late 2008, the Senate inquiry process — as well as the similar Senate Estimates Committee arena — provides significant scope for Senators to raise important issues and question those in power.

The last 14 years have seen Australia’s telecommunications industry de-regulated — and revolutionised several times over, firstly with the onset of the internet in the late 1990’s, then with the onset of broadband in the 2000’s, and in recent times with the growing power of the mobile broadband networks. And through it all, Lundy has sat in her Senate chair calmly asking questions — in Opposition and in Government.

The senator’s long-standing engagement in this area gives her a depth of understanding of the current revolutionary change being wrought in Australia’s telecommunications industry that no other currently serving politician can match, with the potential exception of former Communications Minister Helen Coonan.

This commitment is evident as far back as Lundy’s maiden speech on 7 May, 1996, when the neophyte senator stated:

By the year 2000 the information sector will be the world’s second largest industry. Those nations that develop the infrastructure necessary for this industry to flourish are the nations that will prosper into the next millennium. Infrastructure is not just cable and microwave dishes; it is an education and training system which can increase people’s skills in developing software and creating useful content.

Already in Australia information and information related activities employ more than 40 per cent of the work force and generate 36 per cent of gross domestic product, and this can only improve.

High quality communications, widespread computer usage and literacy, and a willingness to use modern engineering technologies will be essential ingredients in our economic wellbeing. However, I am not yet convinced that we have sufficiently analysed and discussed the societal and community effects of this shift in our economic base. For example, although the need to take this technology to rural Australia is well recognised, have we explored the long-term impact on the economies of country towns?

The geography of Australia provides special challenges in terms of access to information infrastructure; challenges that can be met only in a policy framework with priorities of equal access, universal service and that which puts the needs of Australians–both suppliers and consumers–first. The best way of ensuring this is through public ownership.

These are pretty clear words for a junior senator. They speak to a long-term interest in the technology portfolio. How many other politicians, you may well ask, demonstrate an interest in government use of technology in their maiden speech to parliament?

Precious few.

Lundy’s commitment to the technology portfolio was recognised just two years after she took office, when she won a junior shadow ministry role assisting the then-shadow minister for industry and technology.

This ascension marked the start of Lundy’s long spell as one minister opposing long-standing Communications Minister Richard Alston, who held the portfolio from 1996 to 2003. In 2001 Lundy was rewarded further, taking over the whole shadow information technology portfolio, although she never held the title of Shadow Communications Minister — Lindsay Tanner held this role from 2001 through 2004, when Conroy became Shadow Communications Minister.

Alston presided over several important developments in the portfolio, including the deregulation of the telco sector, which has led to dramatically improved competition and outcomes for consumers. However, he was repeatedly lampooned in the press for his demonstratable lack of understanding of technology, with UK stalwart the Register describing him as “the world’s biggest luddite”.

Like Conroy, Alston also took a stance against rogue content on the internet — stating on one memorable occasion that pornography was one reason behind the take-up of fibre broadband in South Korea.

Those with long memories will recall that Lundy took full advantage of the situation, handing Alston his ass on a daily basis and delivering the press a constant series of juicy headlines about his incompetence.

And Lundy is still delivering results in the portfolio. For example, in March 2002 she slammed Alston and the Howard government for leaving small to medium enterprises out in the cold when it came to government IT contracts.

In March 2010 — eight years later, it was Lundy (in cohort with Industry Minister Kim Carr) who revealed an IT supplier advocate would be appointed to resolve just that problem. Talk about long-term policy. For a politician, eight years is eight lifetimes. Count us amazed and impressed — it appears Lundy never forgets an issue once she gets interested in it.

You can even see Lundy’s commitment to the technology sector in the people she surrounds herself with. One of her chief advisors is Pia Waugh — long-time open source advocate and former Volante staffer and power couple with Jeff Waugh, himself a prominent member of the open source community and IT industry luminary.

And Lundy is married to David Forman, director of the Competitive Carrier’s Coalition, a lobby group which represents … well just about every other telco in Australia apart from Telstra.

Despite what many saw as Lundy’s long-running success as shadow IT minister, she eventually lost the portfolio in October 2004. A comparison with Conroy’s own parliamentary history may prove illuminating at this stage.

Conroy also ascended to the Senate in 1996. Like Lundy, he mentioned technology in his maiden speech on 8 May:

The Labor Party’s next challenge is to confront the changing structure of Australia’s work force. Technological change is forcing the pace as more people work part time and from home. A new type of poverty is beginning to emerge and its impact will need to be assessed carefully. We are seeing a growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. This has many implications for public policy.

How do we ensure that every Australian child has the education including the standard of literacy they need to be able to use the new information technologies? How do we ensure that all Australians have access to the information carriers that will revolutionise the way we learn, work and enjoy ourselves? More practically, what can we do to make sure Australians have the skills and backup they need to be leaders in developing and providing these new technologies?

But to my mind there is a subtle difference between their respective approaches. Both emphasised the fear of unequal access. But Lundy went further — discussing the potential for the technology sector to promote positive economic change.

Unlike Lundy, Conroy appears to have sought out more powerful and broader parliamentary roles. He was immediately appointed deputy opposition whip in the Senate after he ascended to the Senate alongside Lundy in 1996 and then had a succession of shadow ministries in finance, small business and corporate governance until he won the shadow communications portfolio in late 2004.

It was only at this point — some six years after Lundy — that he joined the Senate committee on Environment, Communications, IT and the Arts.

Lundy has been controversial at points and has not been shy of grabbing headlines — especially in her tenure opposing Alston. And she is happy to attack the Opposition when she feels it is appropriate. But generally she does not go on the attack within her own party — even going to public lengths to emphasise her commitment to working within partly lines on the mandatory internet filter policy, which she opposes but will vote for when its associated legislation lands in parliament (she will not cross the floor).

Her approach could be broadly characterised as consultative rather than confrontational — she has rarely used her Senate position to go heavily on the attack in parliament, appearing to prefer a behind the scenes approach. She is believed to be part of Labor’s ‘socialist left’ faction — which Wikipedia describes as championing socially liberal values such as women’s rights and Aboriginal reconciliation.

In comparison, Conroy (a member of the Labor right) has earned himself a reputation even within his own party for his confrontational approach. His 2006 attack on fellow Laborite Simon Crean’s run for a pre-selection seat in Hotham — which led to Crean’s repeated calls for Conroy’s resignation as deputy leader of the opposition in the Senate — is a good example of this.

Conroy also had a differing level of success in Opposition to Lundy.

I was a full-time telecommunications reporter through much of Conroy’s tenure in opposition — for two years from the start of 2006 until mid-2008. And I can testify that Conroy was broadly ineffectual in the portfolio at opposing then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan, as I chronicled in this article from March 2006 — a year and a half into Conroy’s ascension to the portfolio.

Not quite as ineffectual as Tony Smith has been in opposing Conroy. But that’s another story.

There was one great exception to Conroy’s poor performance. And this was the National Broadband Network.

In early 2007, Conroy persuaded then-leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd and shadow finance minister Lindsay Tanner of the ‘nation-building’ virtue of a significant new communications policy to defeat what was at that time seen as a great problem in the Australian technology sector — the issue of broadband blackspots.

The policy — drawn up quickly and with few details — was a blatant populist pitch to deliver fibre broadband to an Australian public whose interest in the idea had been piqued by a similar project proposed by then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo and thrown out by John Howard’s government.

And there is no doubt it was one big plank in Kevin Rudd’s successful pitch to win government in 2007.

As Brett mentions in his iTnews commentary, Conroy has suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the eyes of the Australian public since the November 2007 election. The primary reason is the public distaste for the mandatory internet filter policy, but he also continues to mis-speak, conduct sustained attacks on technology industry stalwarts such as Google and potentially prejudice legal trials such as iiNet’s defence against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft.

Perhaps most importantly, he appears to lack a fundamental grasp of much of the technology which he is charged with regulating.

But it is delivering the National Broadband Network policy which Rudd no doubt sees as his chief responsibility. And I don’t expect him to lose his position as Communications Minister any time soon, because of this reason. To Rudd, Conroy is likely “NBN guy”. And “NBN guy” he will stay through thick and thin, no matter how much the public rages against him because of the internet filter policy.

This single fact does much to illustrate Kate Lundy’s plight. Yes, she understands technology itself, as well as policy in the area and the industry much better than Conroy ever will. And her personal style makes it much more likely she will drive outcomes that will please more in the sector.

However, Lundy was not able to muster the political capital to get a massive, multi-billion-dollar policy like the NBN through cabinet.

In relation to technology policy, Conroy has failed on almost every other front but the NBN. But the NBN is a king-hit, winner takes all prize that will define his career. To take it away from him, Lundy will need to play a much harder, faster and tougher style of politics or continue to be marginalised within Labor.

You can see this harder style of politics being played by other politicians in the portfolio. Conroy plays it. Ludlam — who bent Conroy over a barrel and forced him to cough up the NBN Implementation Study — is playing it. Nick Minchin played it very well. And even Malcolm Turnbull has flirted with it from a distance.

But so far Lundy has not demonstrated the stomache for it. In politics, you don’t earn a position of power. You seize it.

Image credits: Office of Stephen Conroy, Kate Lundy, released to press and Creative Commons


  1. “In relation to technology policy, Conroy has failed on almost every other front but the NBN.”

    … but even then, the attitude and process taken by the Minister on this excellent policy — stonewalling on reports and the like — points to an unfortunate consistency with terrible policies such as the filter.

    Disclosure: I have met the Minister, found him personable and informed… but I have campaigned against the filter policy and been disappointed by the approach of the Minister and his office on other fronts. I’m also referred to in the article, but that may indicate how comfortable I am with the conflict-of-interest firewall we operate at home! ;-)

    • Completely agree with this, it has proven very difficult to get information about what is actually happening with the NBN process, and there are still many contracts being tendered and signed behind closed doors, infrastructure being rolled out without publicity and so on.

      And of course, Telstra and the Government have been negotiating for months and months and months … but nobody really knows exactly what they are talking about, or what the outcome may be.

      NBN Co chief Mike Quigley has done a lot to address the transparency problem, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

  2. I can’t believe Kate Lundy will vote for Internet censorship. How will she live with herself afterwards? What about Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    Your conclusion is spot on. If she doesn’t show some commitment and toughness over this, she might as well not be in politics.

    • Personally, I think Lundy has been part of the Labor system for so long — it would be very hard for her at this point to consider crossing the floor on the issue. I think there is a need for some more idealism in politics though … surely if you have been a senator for 14 years, you don’t have to be that worried about the party machine.

      If Lundy decided to cross the floor on the filter proposal, after all, it’s not like personally she would be risking much. As a veteran senator with stacks of connections, she would be able to get a job in industry or the not-profit sector easily, and she also gets a permanent pension from memory — that’s if she didn’t decide to stand as an independent and try and maintain her seat in the next election.

      When you think about it this way … it doesn’t seem like she has much to lose.

      • Granted the opt-in and opt-out don’t save the country from wasting money. But Lundy may have more chance of tempering this lunacy staying where she is.

        If she crossed the floor:
        1) What chance is there of axing this sham?
        2) What chance of the sham filter succeeding without any of her tempering?

        I’m honestly scared 2) is likely.

        Though an advert campaign like “Conroy admits it: The filter will not protect your child from pornography.” might be effective.

        • I think if she crossed the floor she would galvanise opposition to this mess. I don’t think she is the only one inside the Senate or inside the Labor party who feels strongly about the filter. It would be interesting if some of the Liberals also voted against their party on this one … why not Malcolm Turnbull?

        • Of course, we don’t know which ways the Liberals are planning to vote on this just yet … they have said they are waiting for the legislation.

  3. Luvyawork. Xlnt piece. Is it any wonder cynicism towards politics in Au is at an all time high. Despite kates laudable work, the filter is the reason why the alp should be voted out of office. There should be no compromise on our freedom.

    • Cheers!

      Yeah there is no doubt there is currently a vast amount of cynicism out there … and no wonder, when even the one Labor senator who does “get” IT won’t cross the floor on the biggest national censorship issue Australia has ever had. How about these politicians start to listen to the will of the people for a change … instead of the party line?

    • Cheers! Surely it will be virtually impossible to get Conroy out of the Senate … he just needs to win the requisite percentage of votes in Victoria, after all, and then he’s in. It’s not similar to the House of Representatives system where you can actually target someone’s specific seat and take them out (ie, the Maxine McKew strategy).

      • Indeed. I think the only hope to displace Senator Conroy is for him to completely stuff up the NBN. Given his incompetence in other matters, this is only a matter of time. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later. The high paying jobs to mates scandal was a good start, but it’s obviously going to need something much bigger than that.

        Good article, by the way. I haven’t met Senator Conroy personally, but I’ve been very impressed with Senator Lundy when I’ve spoken to her (she’s my representative). I got the impression she doesn’t want to be further sidelined, which is one of the reasons for her less aggressive posture. ACT representatives have a hard enough time at the Federal level, because the seats here aren’t marginal, and thus there’s no political motivation to give plump portfolios to representatives from here.

        • Cheers! I don’t know what could be bigger than the filter … I think it would have to be some kind of political corruption, but from what I have seen of Conroy, he is normally on the straight and narrow — comes from not drinking ;)

          I know Lundy has some influence, as you can see from her work in Government 2.0, but she has tended not to engage with the really big issues — she has typically gone for the small and medium-sized ones. I would like to see her realise that after 14 years in parliament, she can go “big game hunting” as they say — what is the real risk to her if she loses her job? She does have a parliamentary pension coming, after all.

  4. Brilliant article, Renai.

    As a newcomer to Australia I am often amazed at the level of incompetence that appears to be permitted here. Either Lundy or Ludlam, heck, even my 12 year old cat, would do a better job in the portfolio without wandering around with both feet firmly planted their mouths. At least they now something about he portfolio and know when they need to ask experts for deeper and better understanding.

    • Cheers! Yeah I have been constantly surprised by it … about the only Communications Minister I respected was Helen Coonan, and she clearly underestimated how interested Australians were in having fibre broadband connections installed throughout the nation. But she at least ‘got’ the industry and had good relationships with the people in it. Except of course Telstra — which I think governments in general are banned from having a good relationship with ;)

      I would like to see Rudd give Lundy a go as Communications Minister and switch Conroy somewhere else. Lundy clearly has more experience and understanding of the portfolio, and better relationships in the sector. Of course, she would, no doubt, take a while to get up to speed with the demands of keeping her department on track etc, but that is to be expected from anyone.

      • That would be great, then Conroy could try to do something useful, like stitch his lips together or something.

        • He certainly does need to work on his popularity a bit more … he’s probably thanking his lucky stars he’s a senator and doesn’t have an electorate to worry about ;)

  5. In simple terms, Conroy is a headkicker (you have to be, to be a whip) and Lundy is a concensus builder (ie, bleeding lefty outside of the powerbase of the Government – The Right)

  6. An excellent article Renai. Lundy has been a stalwart of our industry and its potential to move us on from a ‘dig it up and send it overseas’ economy for many years, in the face of populist and ignorant policy making on both sides of politics. I’ve heard her speak at a few functions and her down to earth approach resonates well with us IT types. Her focus on getting things done ahead of self-promotion and headline making is likely to be ever at her cost – aside from the obvious, yet unuttered factor – she’s playing in a male-dominated sport. (Though true to form, she’s quietly making in-roads there, too).

    Don’t get me started on Conroy. Apart from being a moron, his capacity to politicise wrong-headed policy decisions backs my theory that the ALP is in the grip of right wing religiously-dominated factions that somehow seem committed to doing what the ALP has done so many times before – snatching defeat from the jaws of a resounding victory 3 years ago.

  7. Given this is published by a .au website, can we PLEASE get rid of idiot Americanisms like “ass”, when the perfectly good “arse” is usable?

    • heh sorry — “ass” and “arse” have two rather distinct meanings to my mind … they are used in different contexts in Australia ;)

  8. Great article Renai, thanks.

    I’ve met Kate at several IT industry events as we’ve followed similar progressive issues as they came up over the years: broadband, RIMs, filter, NBN, Gov2. She’s a tireless advocate for steering Australia in the right direction on societal IT issues.

    I don’t doubt that you need to be a head kicker like Conroy to be Comms minister, but from what I’ve seen Senator Lundy is more of a conscientious consultant than a bully. It’s a life choice whether to behave like Conroy, and I’m sure Kate knows her inclusive and consultative approach is better.

    However, Australia needs a bully like Conroy to fix the Telstra/NBN/Govt situation, and in that regard he’s performing quite well. You need a bully to fight a bully.

    Conroy’s filter plan is his “Change the Flag?!” diversion. It’s designed to whip up emotion while taking your eye off their real objective (ACTA, NBN, insulation, take your pick).

    Maybe the best approach is to make Conroy Minister for Telstra, and bring Kate in for all the jobs that need consultation, good communication, industry participation and a knowledge of the fundamental concepts in the portfolio.


    • Cheers George! I enjoyed writing it :) I agree Senator Lundy’s inclusive approach is better for dealing with the industry … I’m just not that sure it has gotten her very far in the parliament. I’d like to see her take a stronger approach to her fellow politicians. I’m not saying play dirty like I have seen others do, but I would like to see more of a principled stand on things and less adherence to the party line. After you’ve been a senator for 14 years you could expect that that level of seniority would grant her some leeway. She’s not a junior any more.

      As for Telstra, I would sick Senator Ludlam on them — he seems to have some firm ideas about keeping Telstra in line ;) I am a fan of the work Telstra CEO David Thodey is doing there though — he seems to be putting Telstra’s interests first while still engaging proactively with the community. Some good fence-mending going on.

  9. Great piece Renai, with some great links for further study/reading.

    On the filter issue, what can we do with our online communities to leverage our collective voices and make them heard? Sure, there’s the #nocleanfeed hashtag which gets plenty of attention on Twitter – but are we just an echo-chamber there? Is it having an impact? I often wonder.

    I met Kate and Pia at BarCamp Canberra in February this year – it was fantastic to have them there, on a Saturday demonstrating their commitment to the technology sector and getting involved in the discussions. They truly are inspiring and I hope with their leadership the general public can be informed and educated about the implications of the filter.

    Great job you’re doing with Delimiter and providing a much-needed local voice for the industry.

    Tony Hollingsworth

    • Cheers Tony, I enjoyed writing it! And am having fun with Delimiter :)

      I think online communities have already done a lot to combat the filter, but I think from here on in it needs to get much more personal. I like the fact that Electronic Frontiers Australia has started hosting forums in real life to debate the filter and I’d like to see more of that. If people debate these sorts of issues on the internet, politicians can easily write the debates off as being part of a minority opposed to the filter.

      But if the debate spills into the streets of their electorates, i think it will be a different story entirely.

  10. Renai,

    Kate Lundy and Pia Waugh have the potential to take ICT and grow it in Australia – Already demonstrated by the fact that nearly everyone knows them in the industry, be it at a local gathering of Girl Geeks Australia, or promoting the opposition to the filter on Twitter. The new PM would be wise to re-shuffle her cabinet and bring Senator Lundy to prominence, not just for the women in ICT, but for the good of the greater community of the ICT industry – we need strong representation, we need a voice in the parliamentary wilderness, and with Senator Lundy, we have that opportunity.

    The work that they have done with Gov2.0 is exemplary, opening up the online comments was a stroke of genius, it allowed ordinary people like my self to have our say, and there were some examples of Diamonds in the Coal, regarding ideas and suggestions.

    In order for the ICT Industry to strengthen and grow, we need to be able to concentrate on new technologies, new directions, the retention of our local talent – otherwise other countries will benefit from our ground work, and we need to do this without the fear of an overhanging filter of our works, thoughts and ideas.

    Back in the ’90s, Technology was about Research and Development, with major companies vying for the title of biggest innovator, who had the biggest slice of local engagement in the R&D teams, nowadays, we seem to be a poorer cousin to other countries, with innovation taking a back seat, and most R&D being done off-shore. (at least, with the lack of information coming in about R&D initiatives, it certainly seems as if we aren’t a technological power anymore)

    Conroy will not win the hearts of everyday people in ICT, he lost them when he initiated the Internet Filter. Senator Lundy can. Being approachable on twitter, attending local ICT events, the work that she and Pia have done allows us a glimpse of what policy would be like if the portfolio was held by someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

    If the filter was such a good idea, we already would have one. We probably wouldn’t even know it was there. We don’t and the Security side of the ICT industry tells me that we won’t, not to the level that Conroy envisages – it will just be a waste of our resources and time to work out ways around the filter, instead of making better innovative and diverse technological advances for the benefit of all.

  11. “Despite what many saw as Lundy’s long-running success as shadow IT minister, she eventually lost the portfolio in October 2004 to Conroy. A comparison with Conroy’s own parliamentary history may prove illuminating at this stage.”

    This is deceptive. Conroy didn’t take anything resembling a comms shadow role from Lundy. She never had it and was never slated for it.

    Conroy had been actively engaged in the comms portfolio since 2001 as Tanner’s rep. At that time, Tanner was shadow comms and consumer affairs minister. From late 2004 on Conroy was shadow comms spokesman. Around 2005 when Coonan was starting to battle with Telstra he became more active in the opposition spokesman role. He became comms minister after the election in 2007.

    In other words he’d slowly been preparing for the role. Lundy was on a parallel path staying out of trouble dealing with pure IT portfolios and sport and so on. At some point she married David Forman head of the CCC and was totally out of the running anyway.

    To suggest that somehow Conroy “took” her role is totally wrong.

    • You’re right, Robbo — I only became aware of this mistake today. I’m planning a correction to the article to rectify this mistake. Hopefully I will get that done tomorrow.

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