full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
2 August 2013
Image: Office of Ed Husic
opinion/analysis If you take a good hard look at the report published this week by the Federal Parliament’s IT price hike inquiry, you’ll eventually realise that almost nobody will immediately benefit from its publication; not the Australian public, not businesses, not the government, and most certainly not IT vendors. But the inquiry has already benefited one individual very strongly: Ed Husic, the passionate first term MP who may very well be leading Labor’s broadband portfolio following the Federal Election.
When most people who follow politics in this country think about Ed Husic, if they do at all, a few key associations probably come to mind; like a short series of vivid, colourful brushstrokes, thrown against a largely blank white canvas.
Right now, in the public’s eye, Husic is not a completely rounded figure. He’s not like Malcolm Turnbull, the noble lawyer and merchant banker from Sydney’s rich eastern suburbs, with his wealth, his connections, his comprehensive private school education. Nor has the public grown fond of his personal quirks, as they have over years of being exposed to the ruthlessly efficient but modern Kevin Rudd, with his regular quips (think “I’ve gotta zip”). The nation has not yet become fascinated with Husic’s personal life, as it did with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard; nor have we seen Husic’s face on TV as extensively as we’ve seen Bill Shorten or Christopher Pyne. And certainly Husic is a minnow in the public eye compared with the daily media powerhouse and fount of endless, stinging political attacks, Tony Abbott.
Yet, curiously for a MP elected just three years ago, almost un-noticed at the time amidst grand drama and a hung parliament, and curiously for someone who didn’t have a high profile outside certain industries before that period, the Australian public does already know of Ed Husic. At least a little.
The Australian public knows that Ed Husic was the first MP, at 40 years of age, to read his first speech to Federal Parliament from an iPad. Malcolm Turnbull might have brought his iPad into the chamber earlier, following the device’s launch in Australia several months before Husic was elected, but it was Husic that entered the history books for refusing to rely on paper during his maiden voyage.
The Australian public also knows that Ed Husic is a relentless campaigner for the prices of foreign technology goods and services, when sold in Australia, to reach parity with the prices of those same items in their manufacturers’ home countries. They know that he has been the driving force between the effort popularly titled the IT price hike inquiry, even if he was not chair of the committee holding it.
And the Australian public also knows of Husic’s recent sudden elevation. Following the June 2013 return of Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership he so dramatically lost three years previously in June 2010, Husic was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband, and Parliamentary Secretary to Rudd himself. But that isn’t so important as how that rise happened; When Quentin Bryce swore Husic into office, the Governor General did so using a copy of the Koran, making Husic the first Muslim frontbencher in Australian history. The good-humoured way in which Husic dealt with the rather unsavoury criticism of that event from some minority elements of the public has also very likely entered the mainstream consciousness.
However, as the artists know, a few brushstrokes do not a masterwork make, and in the eye of the Australian public, Husic’s painting is very much unfinished. One might wonder, and I have sometimes been asked, whether there is a grand design linking these events. Is Husic’s seemingly meteoric parliamentary rise a creature of accidence, or is it by some conspiracy? Where did he come from, so suddenly? What kind of person is he, really? What will be his next steps? Why an IT price hike inquiry, why broadband, why Rudd? Will his canvas turn out to be a Rembrandt, lovingly finished and complete in every detail, or will it feature the chaos and inconsistency of a Dali? Will it be sublime or ridiculous, polished or rawly challenging?
The key to answering these questions is not an easy one for the general public; nor is it even an easy one for political journalists. But a decade as an Australian technology reporter has probably given me more exposure to Husic than most; hopefully I can answer some of those questions here.
The key background facts about Ed Husic are easily available on the public record. A child of Bosniak Muslim migrants, Husic was raised in Western Sydney, not too far away from where he currently resides in his seat of Chifley. He didn’t have a first class education like some; instead he attended public schools in his area, ultimately graduating from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts (Applied Communications) from the University of Western Sydney, which really only formally became a university in the 1990’s. Not for Husic the sandstone of Sydney University or the communal engineering rigour of the University of NSW. The MP was cut from rougher stuff. But he did make great use of his education; and continues to.
Although in the 1990’s Husic did serve as a research officer for then MP for Chifley, Roger Price (who Husic would later succeed in the seat), and he also worked as a union organiser, I would say that the first time Husic came to any real public notice was 1998, when Husic was elected as vice-president of the Communications Division of the Australian Workers Union. For the four years from 1999 to 2003, Husic also held a communications manager post at Integral Energy.
What we need to understand about this period in Husic’s life is that it must have been very formative and fruitful indeed.
At that stage Husic already had quite a lot of exposure to politics. His time with Price, his involvement with the Labor Party in NSW and his work with the union movement, as well as his exposure to the inner workings of a fundamental infrastructure company such as Integral (which owns a substantial electricity distribution network throughout the state), would have ensured that.
But one must also remember that this was a very interesting period for telecommunications and telecommunications workers, as well as for Labor in NSW. John Howard’s Coalition Government had taken dramatic steps to deregulate the telecommunications industry and wrest Telstra’s iron grip from it in 1997; a move which would have opened up both massive opportunities as well as massive headaches for the telecommunications workers which Husic had been elected to represent. The first two tranches of Telstra’s privatisation took place in 1997 and 1999, leaving the Federal Government with a 51 percent holding in Telstra at the time, and Telstra caught between its need to seek profits and its institutional public sector history.
In 1995, Bob Carr had finally wrested control of the NSW Government from the Coalition under John Fahey, and Labor was booming under his strong hand, although some might think, given the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s revelations this week, that some high-profile figures within Labor boomed a little too much.
Husic sat at the centre of all of this, and there is a great deal of evidence that the heretofore unknown union organiser and Blacktown boy was able to take great advantage of it. We can see this through his failed attempt in 2004 to take the Western Sydney seat of Greenway, which counts a slice of Blacktown in its remit, and whose sitting Labor member, Frank Mossfield, was stepping down.
Political journalist Paul Sheehan, in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, tells us that at the time, Greenway was a “factional prize”, and then-Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s book The Latham Diaries, with its categorical definition of Mossfield and Latham himself in Labor’s Right faction, certainly supports this claim. By 2004, Husic’s candidature in Greenway was high-profile enough that Latham, as well as former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, campaigned actively with Husic in the seat. That’s a big step for a union official such as Husic, and indicates top-level support from the brass for a young up-and-comer.
Yet, as Sheehan also wrote at the time, and despite the seriousness of Labor’s need to hold Greenway as a key marginal seat in the 2004 Federal Election, Husic, himself labelled as a member of the NSW Labor Right, appeared oddly shy — perhaps unsure. The SMH writer writes about Husic’s approach to the media at the time:
“… when I tried to contact him last week, I was once again greeted by a brick wall. I called on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I left my numbers. Call any time. Saturday. Sunday. Silence.”
“Presumably, he is a man of good character who has had nothing to do with union warfare, but he’s not talking to me and I’m not the only one he has avoided. When The Bulletin sent a reporter out to Greenway last month, Husic’s office declined all requests for an interview. Latham trailed a posse of political journalists into Husic’s electoral office on Friday, but the Herald’s Cosima Marriner reports that after Husic introduced Latham he made no effort to connect with the visiting media.”
Whether it was his youth at the time (Husic was only 34 at the time, still a very young age to be a candidate for Federal politics), the pressure on his bid to maintain Labor’s grip on Greenway, or what some have labelled an underhanded Coalition campaign against Husic on the basis of his religion (he was running against a staunch member of the Hillsong evangelical church), or even the changing demographics of the electorate or the wider political millieu, Husic lost Greenway in 2004. But it was very close. Had only 1,000 votes gone differently, he would have taken it — and been in Parliament for almost a decade by now.
But Husic lost Greenway. Another formative experience, to be sure.
What came next for next for Husic was fairly obvious: He continued his efforts in the union movement, shifting into the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (the main telco union in Australia) in 2006 and eventually taking leadership of the group as its National President. This is where I first came across Husic — in his role representing Telstra workers, during another period of rapid change for the company under the leadership of Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo.
What’s interesting about Husic in this period is that he wasn’t just another union executive. In fact, he was a rather excellent union executive.
Most union leaders are internally focused. They need to deal with the troops and keep them in line enough to get involved in mass actions, to ensure they get the salary and other arrangements which they’re looking to get from their employers. Consequently, they usually don’t maintain fantastic relationships with outsiders, even when it is in their own interests to do so. I can’t count the number of times I’ve called or emailed a union representative about a story, never to hear back from them, or to have only a very limited conversation.
From what I remember of Husic, he was always different. As CEPU national president, Husic was immediately available to the media. The executive stopped looking purely internally at the CEPU and started communicating constantly and (amazingly for a union) proactively with the media as its problems with Telstra’s ongoing rounds of layoffs ramped up. You can see this from the great proliferation of articles involving CEPU and Husic at the time (see here, here, here, here and here, for example). And the then-union leader also got further engaged with the Parliament. A media release from 2009, for example, chronicles his attendance before a Senate inquiry into the Rudd Government’s Fair Work Bill.
By 2010, Husic was an important national player constantly on the edge of Federal politics and one of the most natural candidates for Chifley, which again contains a slice of Blacktown, but also the notorious areas of Mount Druitt and Rooty Hill. He had also honed his media skills to a fine edge in the CEPU’s war against Telstra. And again it was the Labor Right faction which support Husic’s candidacy when the seat of Chifley came up. “Husic was installed as candidate in Chifley by the party’s national executive with the backing of the Right,” wrote Crikey at the time. This time, although he suffered a primary swing against him of 11.6 percent, Husic took the seat comfortably — as well he might, given its safe Labor status
You can see the continued influence of the NSW Labor Right in Husic’s fortunes through the credits he gave in his maiden speech to Parliament in 2010. “A range of friends extended to me the benefit of their support and the value of their advice,” he said. “The strength of my gratitude for their help and support is as strong today as it was in 2004. My thanks go to ALP New South Wales General Secretary Sam Dastyari, NSW ALP President Bernie Riordan and Senator Mark Arbib.” All three are influential members of the Labor Right.
With all of this in mind, it’s now possible to draw some conclusions about Husic; with particular reference to his contemporaries in the broadband portfolio in Federal Parliament.
Firstly, unlike former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, long-time technology minister aspirant Kate Lundy, current Communications Minister Anthony Albanese, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull or virtually anyone else involved in the broadband or technology portfolios in general, Husic has a long, personal history in the telecommunications sector which has seen him develop what must have been at times an intimate relationship with Telstra, other telcos, and associated industry regulators and unions. Unlike his colleagues, Husic’s past is steeped in telecommunications. And not just for a few years — for a decade Husic was actively engaged in the sector and its workers at a ground level.
Husic’s also still young, and a digital native — he had a Commodore 64 when he was growing up, and has an Xbox 360 now, along with the iPad, a Sony Xperia Android smartphone, an Apple TV, and the requisite parliamentary BlackBerry. Husic also already has fibre to his home — having moved to a new estate in Western Sydney, where Telstra’s Velocity fibre service is already available. He deeply understands the way Australians are facing with technology in their daily lives in a way older politicians — even those as savvy as Turnbull — don’t, because they didn’t grow up with technology.
But beyond this fact, what we need to realise about Husic is that he’s ambitious, tenacious — not giving up on a Federal seat after his Greenway loss years before — and strongly backed by the powerful Labor Right, with its union connections. Husic came from the NSW unions, and maintains links to them; the CEPU publicly congratulated him on his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary in July.
All of this explains much about Husic. It explains his steadfast focus on technology after entering Parliament; it explains his rapidly growing media profile, and of course it explains the development of the IT price hike inquiry.
Husic was elected to Parliament in August 2010; and he could reasonably be expected to be easily elected again several more times. But it took less than a year before he started making his presence felt. In March 2011 he was holding up his iPad in the House of Representatives and pointing out Apple price differences in Australia; by mid-July Apple was interested in talking to Husic about the issue (a virtually unprecedented state of affairs for the reclusive technology giant in Australia), by August the issue had made it into a Productivity Commission report, that same month Husic was already pushing for an enquiry into the issue, and by October Husic had enlisted Treasurer Wayne Swan and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to his cause. And throughout the whole process, Husic had developed a close relationship with a number of journalists and was pushing the issue strongly through the media.
By April the next year — only 12 months after Husic singlehandedly created the issue — the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications was kicking off that enquiry, and had started calling in some of the most powerful technology companies in the world to answer. And Husic had a spot on the committee.
It’s hard to exaggerate how valuable the enquiry has been to Husic. It has given the Labor MP an amazing spot in the media and public spotlight over the past several years, on an issue which almost appears apolitical, and which he personally owns. It’s also an issue on which the Australian public has a virtually universal opinion — we’re being ripped off by the Yanks, and we want a fair go. It taps into everything which a politician would want: Constant media exposure, a David versus Goliath battle with massive corporate interests, the allure of closed door briefings with secretive companies like Apple, and of course a chance to tap into the interests of the younger generation of Australians, who are obsessed with technology.
And, critically, in the context of a national political sphere which has seemed constantly poisoned by its own in-fighting over the past three years, it has given Husic the remarkable chance to position himself as a politician who’s actually doing something the public cares about — and from the backbench, no less.
Looking at the IT price hike inquiry as a whole, one can’t help but feel that as a sum total, it’s been another campaign for Husic in a life of campaigns, albeit one that he personally has passion and belief in. A campaign, backing an issue which the massed public cares about, using the media and political interests to stick it to corporate giants. Precisely the sort of campaign which Husic made a highly successful career out of running for the unions. Precisely the sort of campaign which Husic has become an expert in running.
Of course, when you look at what the inquiry actually achieved, you have to question its actual value to the public. It’s great as an idea and something the public wanted, but despite all the hot air it generated, there is very little to no evidence that it has succeeded or will succeed in changing actual IT prices one jot. The recommendations of its report are very ambitious, but I think many people assume at this point that most of the landmark changes it calls for will never come to pass, due to the technical and legal difficulties of enacting them. Foxtel, for one, has already described the report’s recommendations as “naive”, and to a certain extent I agree. The report’s vision is a fantastic one for consumers; but very much disconnected from the commercial and technical reality of the IT industry. And despite its prominent media coverage, it is not clear what its long-term impact will be. As I wrote when the report was released:
Wow. Simply wow. The recommendations outlined in this report are incredible, and represent something of a “best possible outcome” win for Australian consumers and businesses, in terms of price discrimination in the IT product market. The end of geo-blocking? Legislated right of resale for digital content? A review of TPM sections of the Copyright Act? All of this sounds amazing, and exactly what consumers want. This document really is visionary, and a highly consumer-oriented statement on how the future of digital applications and content should play out in Australia over the next several decades.
Of course, most of the recommendations will never be enacted.
Keen observers will note that it is likely that companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Valve, Microsoft, Sony and others, who sell digital content to Australians, will not agree to abide by these recommendations unless forced to by law, and in fact it is likely that even if laws are enacted to force these companies to follow the recommendations, a huge wave of lawsuits will eventuate and probably go all the way to the High Court.
Companies such as Apple, which tightly control their digital content, or even companies such as Steam, which are much more customer-friendly, currently have no functionality, for example, to allow customers to resell products which have been bought through Internet storefronts such as iTunes and Steam. And they have no intention of offering such functionality in their products ever.
The problem for these vendors is two-fold. Firstly, it would be an incredible technical step to allow such functionality in Australian versions of Steam and iTunes (to take two examples), but not in international versions. These vendors simply do not want to take this step and allow Australians technical functionality not available overseas, such as resale of digital products.
Secondly, there is also the ecosystem to consider. These Internet storefronts depend on highly complex licensing agreements with third parties (for example, music labels in the case of iTunes, and video game manufacturers in the case of Steam). There are very strict stipulations in these agreements which allow vendors to sell digital copies of the appropriate content; if the Federal Government tries to force features such as geo-blocking removal or adding in resale options, this move will go against the distributor’s underlying, standardised contracts with their content providers.
Realistically, Australia is part of a global marketplace. It’s a very nice idea, but trying to introduce consumer safeguards on the Australian segment of that marketplace — when no other country is doing the same — is going to be an exercise in frustration for everyone concerned. Globalisation has its benefits — but also its problems.
In short, the IT price hike inquiry has raised the profile of this issue a great deal. But this may not in itself cause any real outcomes as a result. That will take really sustained government action on this front over the next 3-5 years, at least, and engagement not just in Australia, but likely with other governments internationally.
I don’t think this myself, as I have a lot of trust and belief in Husic, but if you were a suspicious, cynical kind of person, you would have to wonder whether this lack of immediate real outcomes from the IT price hike inquiry really matters too much, when it comes to Husic personally. After all, the backbencher has already been rewarded for his effort and passion and will very likely be rewarded further.
Kevin Rudd’s promotion of Husic to the role of Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband is recognition that Husic is eminently qualified for the role, and recognition that the Member for Chifley has been constantly and positively active in the technology portfolio since he took his seat in 2010. Kevin Rudd’s promotion of Husic to the role of Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister — a role held by Kate Lundy from 2010 through 2012 under Gillard — is recognition of the role Husic played in Rudd’s own ascension (Husic resigned from his role as a government whip in May this year and joined Rudd’s camp), as well as his position in the Labor Right, which Rudd is also a key member of. Both Lundy — who Rudd made a point of demoting during his reshuffle from her favoured position as Sports Minister, although the ACT Senator did pick up a Ministerial role assisting with the Digital Economy, another of her strengths — and Gillard were of the Left.
One must also wonder what Husic’s position will be in the Labor caucus in the medium term.
If Labor loses the upcoming Federal Election, Husic will become the obvious candidate to become Shadow Communications Minister, opposing a strong Communications Minister in the form of Malcolm Turnbull. That would be a logical appointment. Albanese’s appointment to the Communications Portfolio was logical, given that the NBN needs a safe pair of hands as a major infrastructure project. But in oppposition, you don’t want a safe pair of hands on key projects like the NBN. You want agitators, energetic young MPs passionate about their portfolio who can cut their teeth against experienced campaigners like Turnbull. And Husic fits this bill perfectly. His main rival for the role would likely be Lundy, but given that Lundy has been in Parliament since 1996, one does wonder whether the Senator has the political muscle to seize such a key portfolio. Right now, Husic has momentum; Lundy does not.
If Labor wins the election, things will stay as they are, and Labor will gradually groom Husic for bigger things. He will hold his Parliamentary Secretary roles for some time, but may be shuffled around to different portfolios to gain experience; given his union background, he would be a natural fit to aid the Minister for Workplace Relations, for example.
Either way, it’s impossible not to concede that it was the development of the IT price hike inquiry which has been behind much of Husic’s rapid rise in the Federal Parliament since 2010. With few resources of his own but his own intellect, passion, media and political skills and sheer gumption, Husic has used the vehicle of the inquiry to vault himself to the forefront of the broadband and technology portfolios in Australia in a very short period of time. It will be interesting — very interesting — to see what cards the Member for Chifley chooses to play next.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to allege any impropriety on the part of Husic. The MP’s passion for issues surrounding technology is very clear, and he has definitely acted on behalf of Australian consumers and businesses in pushing the issue. He should be commended for this, and I do so.
However, as Husic grows in importance in the technology portfolio in Australia, I also wanted readers to think about this fast-rising politician with the full context of the situation in mind. While the development of the IT price hike inquiry was something that Australians definitely wanted, and supported en-masse, it was also simultaneously a useful political tool for Husic personally. This is how politics often works, and in fact how it usually works best — dual outcomes from a single effort. Personal rewards, linked with public effort. We may think our politicians purely idealistic at times — but there is always a dose of political pragmatism in there somewhere. I have supported the IT price hike inquiry, and I have supported Husic — but we must also keep our minds open to the wider context.
When Stephen Conroy resigned from the Communications Ministership, I wrote: “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.”
However, upon a detailed examination of Husic as a politician, I have had to rethink that comment that there is nobody who could replace Conroy.
Husic joined Federal Parliament at an older age than Conroy did (Husic was 40; Conroy 33). But he’s also more experienced. He has more political support than Conroy did when he joined Parliament, and more grassroots union support. He has a great deal more experience than Conroy did at that stage, and he has already accomplished more in his first three years in office than Conroy was able to. And unlike Conroy or other political contemporaries, Husic’s whole career has been steeped in telecommunications. His ambitions in that area are a natural outgrowth of his experience; not a retrofitting of his desires into his current portfolio.
Then too, Husic has shown himself to be much more highly energetic than his peers; and more able to take advantage of issues. Kate Lundy had 14 years to raise the IT price hike issue to the level of a Parliamentary Enquiry, before Husic joined Parliament. The Senator did good work in that time, but was never able to take such issues to the level Husic already has. It took Conroy a decade before he started really being effective in opposition, yet Husic has already made waves in his first three years.
It’ll be very interesting to see what Husic can do over the next few years in the Australian telecommunications and technology portfolio — in Government or in Opposition. This morning, as I was polishing this story, I had already received a media release from the MP attacking comments made by Malcolm Turnbull — a Liberal leader of significantly greater standing than Husic. With his recent ascension, fuelled by his creation of the IT price hike inquiry, Husic now has a role with the big boys, and is right in the middle of yet another campaign which the public largely supports — the fight for the National Broadband Network. We’ll be watching closely to see how far he can go.