opinion For all his flaws and missteps, Stephen Conroy has been an incredible reformer and revolutionary force for change in Australia’s technology sector over most of the past decade. He will ultimately be remembered as Australia’s greatest ever Communications Minister; a visionary who almost single-handedly drove the creation of the National Broadband Network.
If you were following Australian politics at all last night, you would very likely have been preoccupied with the fate of the major actors in the Federal arena. You would have gasped as Kevin Rudd’s victory over Julia Gillard for the Prime Ministership was announced. You would have admired Gillard’s iron stoicism in defeat and Wayne Swan’s cheery determination to continue on. You would have had mixed feelings at seeing a fairly grim Rudd once again take up the leadership mantle, almost three years to the day after it was torn from him.
Unless you were specifically keeping an eye out for it, as I was, you probably didn’t pay too much attention to some of the collateral damage coming out of this struggle of the titans. Certainly the television networks and online commentators last night gave scant airtime to considering the serious implications of some of the ripples which Rudd’s massive wave of change caused.
This morning i want to give just one of those ripples the attention that it’s due. I speak, of course, of the quiet and dignified resignation last night of Senator Stephen Conroy from the post of Leader of the Senate and, more importantly for Australia’s technology sector, from the role of Communications Minister.
Conroy’s resignation came as no real surprise to those of us who track the Victorian Senator closely.
Of course, there is the obvious fact that Conroy, a long-time Gillard supporter who has made his feelings about Rudd’s mismanagement of the Cabinet in his first tenure as Prime Minister very plain, had already earlier this week stated that he would be very unlikely to serve in a new Rudd cabinet. Along with Wayne Swan, Conroy was expected to be one of the first senior Gillard supporters to depart the sinking ship, in the event of a successful Rudd challenge. And, true to his word (a rarity in politics), he fell on his sword minutes after Rudd’s victory was announced.
However, it’s also true that there has been a certain weariness around Conroy’s performance in his portfolio for much of the past year, and for good reason. There are quite a few in the sector who had suspected that Conroy would make way for a new Minister and seek the back bench following the upcoming Federal Election — perhaps even if Labor was successful in retaining government.
The reason for Conroy’s weariness is very apparent to those who have followed events in the telecommunications portfolio over the past half-decade since Labor first came to power.
If you think about the most important portfolios in Federal Government politics, it’s normally areas such as Treasury, Finance, Defence, Immigration, Education, Welfare and Health which come to mind. These are the areas which normally require the closest oversight by Ministers; they are big-spending portfolios where ideological differences exist between the various parties, and where politicking is common. It is these areas which politicians usually aspire to Ministership in.
Prior to Conroy’s ascension to the Communications Ministership in November 2007, the Communications portfolio was not a particularly important one. Previous ministers in the portfolio — such as Helen Coonan and Richard Alston — primarily oversaw regulatory changes in the area which could be best described as ‘tweaking’. For decades, Australian governments have not invested directly in telecommunications, preferring instead to gradually deregulate the sector and slowly progress the privatisation of former government monopoly Telstra, stimulating competition along the way.
Conroy’s ascension to the Communications Ministership in 2007 changed all this and vaulted the communications portfolio into one of the nation’s most important and the position of Communications Minister into a key senior Cabinet post.
As I wrote at the time, the Senator had realised what very few others in politics then understood; that the problem of broadband blackspots and the gridlock created by the Howard Government’s abject failure to structurally separate Telstra’s wholesale and retail operations (as other countries such as the UK were in the process of doing with their own incumbent telcos) had left a massive opportunity open for a progressive Labor administration to take direct action in the sector. And Conroy also proved himself politically astute at the time; as shortly before his own ascension to the Prime Ministership, Conroy was able to persuade the then-Opposition Leader Rudd of the importance of unprecedented government intervention in the sector.
It must be said that Conroy bungled his first several years as Communications Minister, and wasted much of this opportunity — as new Ministers often do, before they get a grip on their portfolios.
The first, $4.7 billion plan to upgrade Telstra’s copper telecommunications network with fibre to the node broadband technology in partnership with industry was a hopelessly naive plan which eventually imploded in Conroy’s face due to a combination of factors; Telstra’s hostile leadership led by imported US executive Sol Trujillo and his cadre of ‘amigos’, as well as the lack of interest by foreign investors in getting their feet wet in the regulatory quagmire of Australia’s telecommunications sector, and the inability of Telstra’s rivals (despite their own deep pockets) to present a truly viable co-investment plan to deal with its monopolistic nature.
Then too, Conroy also at the time fell massively foul of one of the smallest aspects of the Rudd Government’s telecommunications policy which conservative religious elements were successful at sneaking into Labor’s platform shortly before Rudd took power in November 2007; its hugely unpopular mandatory Internet filter project.
It has long been suspected that Conroy did not personally support this policy and that the Minister would have abandoned it quickly if he had the choice, as he was eventually able to late last year after largely neutralising it as an election issue back in 2010. I guess we’ll find out for sure if Conroy ever publishes a biography. However, of course Conroy did not have the choice, and Rudd’s own somewhat socially conservative background coupled with the Prime Minister’s incredibly stubborn nature placed Conroy in the unfortunately position as poster child for the filter; a position which would continually see the Senator ridiculed in public over the first several years of his Ministership.
To be honest, the filter issue still dogs Conroy, and unfortunately it will be one of the defining policies he will be remembered for in his tenure as Communications Minister. You can see this in the approbrium heaped on the Senator last night as his resignation was made public. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter last night. “Conroy was the worst and the most incompetent Communications Minister of all times,” wrote another. And of course, it is unlikely that Conroy will ever live down the ignominy of being named “Internet villain of the year” at the UK’s Internet industry awards in June 2009, at the height of the public’s disapproval of the Internet filter policy.
To say that this is unfortunate is a collossal understatement. For Conroy’s accomplishments in the Communications portfolio since he found his feet in it in early 2009 are truly remarkable, far outshadowing his filter missteps and and placing him in a small elite of Australian politicians who have made huge impacts on the industries which they oversee, as well as a tiny group of Australian politicians who have truly understood technology and the Internet.
Conroy’s pièce de résistance; his shining glory in the portfolio, will always be the early 2009 generation of the Federal Government’s current National Broadband Network policy from the ashes of the old failed policy it took to the 2007 election.
If you go back to the development and launch of the policy (you can find more information about its genesis here), it’s clear that it was a unique confluence of factors centering on Conroy personally that fulfilled the creation of the modern NBN policy as we know it today.
Because of the years he had experienced steeped in the nitty-gritty details of the telecommunications sector, Conroy was able to see that the global long-term future of the telecommunications sector was clearly based on universal fibre deployment. Countries such as South Korea and Japan had already been able to steal a march globally because of the early and expensive bets placed in those geographies, and forward-thinkers in other countries such as Europe and the US, which had often focused on cheaper HFC and fibre to the node rollouts, were already looking ahead to the fibre needs of the next decades.
Conroy’s genius (with a little help from Australia’s own industry) was the realisation that he could use the electoral lure of universal fibre broadband to almost all Australians to simultaneously deliver a number of other policy aims. Replacing Telstra’s copper network with a fibre network would once and for all deal with the technical problems inherent in upgrading that network, and setting up a new, wholesale-only fibre monopoly would once and for all deal with Telstra’s structural separation issues, as the previous Howard Government had failed to do. Along the way, Conroy could also argue that the development of the NBN would stimulate Australia’s economy and assist in its switch to an information economy and away from Australia’s resources and agricultural roots, and there was also the likelihood that the NBN would eventually pay for itself through user subscriptions.
The Senator also knew that only one type of administration would be likely to support such a plan; a new Labor Government backed by a massively popular Prime Minister who would be willing to take a risks to deliver a once in a lifetime infrastructure project. And that’s precisely what the Rudd administration was at that time.
If you go back and watch the press conference in April 2009 where Rudd and Conroy announced the NBN, with hindsight, there is a sense of ridiculous naivity about the event.
Rudd was pushing things way too far with his cabinet and the Labor caucus, an arrogant approach which would result in the night of the long knives a year later. And Conroy, honestly, had no idea that implementing the NBN policy would be as hard as it has been since that time. Project management of a national infrastructure initiative is tough; a lot tougher than announcing it.
But at the time, there was also sense that the pair were introducing something genuinely new and visionary to the Australian political arena; a massive new infrastructure project which would deliver fantastic service delivery outcomes, reform the telecommunications industry and set up Australia for the new digital millennium along the way.
Over the years since that time, there is no doubt that the NBN project as a whole has gone remarkably off-track. It’s universally acknowledged that the project is substantially late, NBN Co has had extensive senior staff turnover and the whole project is turning out to be massively more complex than anyone, except perhaps Telstra, could have anticipated back in April 2009. The Coalition has more than enough ammunition to criticise the project, and the fact that it brought out one of its most powerful guns to tackle it, former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, has not helped Conroy’s ability to defend the project.
However, there is an important fact here worth acknowledging: Conroy’s April 2009 NBN policy has stood the test of time since it was introduced, and there is very little doubt that the bones of it — very large bones indeed, century-influencing bones — will eventually be delivered.
The policy remains overwhelmingly popular amongst the Australian electorate today, it enjoys the support of pretty much the entire telecommunications industry, it is slowly being delivered, and it truly is the envy of many telecommunications industry experts, politicians and most importantly, individual residents and businesses the world over. Out of all of the accomplishments and policies of the Rudd and Gillard administrations, it is very likely the NBN that has been the most visionary policy and the one most likely to impact on Australia’s future in the long-term.
The proof of this is the fact that the Coalition has been forced to largely support it. A close examination of the rival NBN policy launched by Turnbull in April shows that it shares most of its elements with Labor’s existing policy, differing largely only in that the Coalition wants to deliver the project faster, through using less fibre infrastructure and reusing more of Telstra’s network.
That a Labor Government has been able to drag a fiscally conservative Opposition to the table to invest tens of billions of dollars of public money in a project of this size is nothing short of astonishing. Largely, in 2013, we have bi-partisan support for the NBN, and that isn’t due to the quality of the political maneuvering around the project. It is due to the quality, the enduring sheer quality of the original, incredibly audacious vision which Conroy delivered in April 2009. As veteran telecommunications analyst Paul Budde wrote this morning:
“… the achievements of this Minister have been nothing less than remarkable … as a result of his vision and hard work the country is now building a national broadband network, and with contracts in place for NBN connections for approximately half of the population, the future of the NBN is safe. The Coalition has also warmed to the plan and there is now bipartisan support for the NBN. This is an enormous achievement … There won’t be many ministers who will have as great a legacy to look back on as Stephen Conroy.”
Much of this is due to another factor here which must be acknowledged, beyond Conroy’s original NBN vision: His sheer tenacity in driving the project. As Apple supremo Steve Jobs once famously said: “Real artists ship” — or in other words, vision is nice, but delivery is also important.
Those familiar with the NBN debate will know that the Coalition, conservative commentators and the majority of Australia’s mainstream media has done everything they possibly could to tear down this project. Ever since it was introduced four years ago, the NBN policy has suffered constant attacks on every front, from the integrity of its executives to its choice of technologies, from its relationships with its contractors to its reporting mechanisms, from its finances to its public relations approach. Every single piece of mud that exists in this universe has been flung at this project, with every ounce of might that powerful Australian politicians, commentators and mainstream media outlets could muster, even if flinging such mud has required outright lies being told in public.
Yet, unbelievably, the centre has held.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, along with a few key lieutenants such as NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley, have staunchly sat like the Spartans at Thermopylae, and defended their ground with the NBN every step of the way, refusing to yield before the massive tide of incredible lies, half-truths, slander and base accusations which have been flung their way. You all know what I’m talking about here. You’ve read daily about this stuff in the pages of Delimiter for the past three years now. The amount of mud which has been flung at the NBN has been incredible.
And yet, Conroy has not yielded. In fact, he has stood his ground so well that, like Apple legend Jobs, Conroy has succeeded in bending reality around himself through sheer bloody mindedness and guts, to the extent that the Opposition now largely accepts the superstructure of the NBN project and is vowing to “complete” the project faster than Labor could, a statement unthinkable only a few years ago.
I do not exaggerate when I say that, even discounting all of his other important portfolio responsibilities in areas such as media reform, digital television switchover and Australia Post (you know, the reforms he slipped in along the way while he was reforming Australia’s entire telecommunications sector), Conroy has had one of the most difficult, intellectually demanding and controversial portfolios in the Federal Government over the past half-decade, and, unlike almost all of his Cabinet colleagues, the Senator is still standing, having survived both the Rudd and Gillard administrations.
If you attend Conroy’s press conferences, as I do, you will have noticed something growing in the Minister over the past several years. Conroy has become so inured to the ongoing slander being thrown at the NBN, so accustomed to dealing with ridiculous leading questions from media outlets such as The Australian and The Financial Review, so practiced at answering technically inept questions from journalists that know little about broadband, that it has become too easy for the Senator.
When I first interviewed Conroy before the 2007 Federal Election, he was the Shadow Minister, and barely understood the basics of Australia’s telecommunications industry structure, or how broadband worked. Today, the Senator is a master of the area, so much so that it has become second nature for Conroy to use facts to repudiate the ridiculous daily insinuations about the NBN that he faces. To his credit, Conroy has continually advanced his knowledge of the field over the years.
Conroy has always been arrogant; his pushy Senate performances long ago saw him labelled as a ‘bulldog’ in parliamentary circles, and I suspect few will forget his ‘red underpants’ gaffe. But the past few years of being locked in the crucible of the NBN debate have also imparted a degree of wisdom on the Senator. Like a master swordsman, there is now no thrust that Conroy’s can’t adeptly handle; no question that throws the Minister for a loop. I have never met a politician that knows as much about his (incredibly technical) portfolio or who had such a mastery of its details. And I will challenge Conroy’s successor (whoever that may be; there are no obvious candidates) to get to the same level.
However all of this has also taken its toll on Conroy; like all visionaries, the Senator has burnt himself up in keeping the NBN dream alive. He has put too much of himself into the flames of the NBN and has wearied of holding the torch for so long and against so much opposition. That’s why Conroy’s resignation this week comes as no real surprise; he has sacrificed himself for his dreams, and now needs to step back before awaiting the next challenge. Perhaps this was the only way for the NBN to have gotten off the ground in the first place; perhaps it needed a ‘bulldog’ of Conroy’s stubbornness to sacrifice all for the cause for that dream to come alive.
There are also other, smaller reasons for Australia’s technology community to remember the Senator fondly. Conroy was the first Communications Minister to acknowledge the efforts of online broadband communities such as Whirlpool, with the Senator repeatedly mentioning NBN threads on Whirlpool in parliament and in press conferences, as well as mentioning influential bloggers in the telecommunications field.
It’s been this level of attention to detail which has shown the Minister’s true commitment to the portfolio and his process of ‘coming home’ as Minister. It’s hard to believe that someone once denounced as the “Internet Villain of the Year” now spends time trawling Whirlpool to stay up to date on the incredibly detailed nuances of the NBN debate. Yet it’s plainly true.
When much of the Australian public thinks about Stephen Conroy, they think about the politician who wanted to impose a draconian Internet censorship regime on Australia, and who contemptuously attacked those who fought against such an effort. Despite Conroy’s recent attempts to ensure transparency around government filtering (remember, it was Conroy who disclosed ASIC’s use of Section 313 powers to block websites, and Conroy who is trying to put transparency and accountability measures around that practice), I saw that level of vitriole arise again last night when Conroy’s resignation was announced; it’s still out there, and it will never go away.
However, when I think of Senator Conroy in 2013, I see the opposite: Conroy’s not the enemy of the Internet. He’s its main champion in Australia. Over the second half of his tenure as Communications Minister, the Senator went native and became one of our own: A self-professed geek; Australia’s most technically knowledgeable politician; a late night reader of Internet forums; a passionate visionary who burnt himself up in the flames of his idealism in his quest to bring universal high-speed broadband to all Australians.
Conroy is a warrior who fought, day by day, a hostile media, an ignorant Opposition happy to be loose with the facts to score cheap political points; a Communications Minister who so out-classed those who came before him that they can barely be counted in the same category. We might like them personally more, but even Conroy’s contemporaries in the technology portfolio — Senators Kate Lundy and Scott Ludlam, and even Turnbull — have not achieved anything in the portfolio on the scale that Conroy has.
Like him or hate him, you can’t deny Stephen Conroy’s massive impact, and you can’t deny he’s been the greatest Communications Minister Australia has ever seen, and perhaps the only politician who has ever proven worthy of the title. We may never see his like again, and right now, there is really nobody qualified to replace him. Vale, Minister. And thank you.