Filter gaffe says more about Fletcher than the Coalition



opinion/analysis The botched resurrection of Labor’s mandatory Internet filtering policy late yesterday afternoon would appear to be more the work of one continually inept Liberal MP than a grand conspiracy by the Coalition to hoodwink the Australian public into generating a false mandate for Internet censorship.

Boy, are the Internet conspiracy theorists out this morning in Australia’s techno-media landscape. Outraged by the Coalition’s botched launch of its new online child safety policy late yesterday afternoon, this morning my web browser is crackling with flames around its edges, as commentators pile vitriolic phrase after vitriolic phrase into a giant bonfire to roast the conservative side of politics for its suspicious behaviour and posit grand shenanigans.

The consensus is that the either Coalition’s internal policy-making and checking procedures were so inadequate that almost anything could get through its unlatched gate and make it into formal policy, or that the quiet release of a new mandatory Internet filtering scheme 36 hours before the election, with no associated launch event or media release and after many Australians have already voted, was a criminal attempt to get the idea into the realm of formal policy with no chance for debate.

Adam Turner’s energetic piece for the Sydney Morning Herald epitomises the current wave of antagonism the Coalition is facing. Writes Turner:

“So what really happened? Did the Coalition seriously expect this policy to slip through unnoticed? Did they change their minds at the last moment? Are they trying to pull the wool over our eyes, or are they merely incompetent? None of these options bode well for a bunch of politicians hoping to form the next government of Australia.”

But not everyone was so polite with their criticism. Telecommunications blogger Michael Wyres was blunt in the way he characterised the Coalition’s moves:

“It is dirty and underhanded. It is disingenuous, and it is deceitful. It is a bloody disgrace … frankly, what happened here is they got caught out and forced into a backflip. It must be wonderful living up high in the clouds on bullshit mountain.”

And there’s plenty more where that came from. I encourage you to dip your mind into the fervid waters of the Australian Twittersphere, if you are in search of diversion on this sunny Friday afternoon. I guarantee you fill find enough insults and suspicions leveled at the Coalition on this issue sufficient to build a pile of dung a mile high.

Now, on the face of it, there certainly is a lot to be concerned about from this little episode. Right from the get-go, it’s important to acknowledge that the Coalition’s online child safety policy as released yesterday would never have included paragraphs pertaining to the UK’s own highly restrictive and unpopular filtering scheme if someone, somewhere in the Coalition’s policy-making hierarchy hadn’t been considering porting that model to Australia.

The sheer idiocy of such a move, given the extreme public displeasure with Labor’s version of the policy that eventually dragged a reluctant Coalition into blocking it (a move that was led by Turnbull himself, as well as Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey), should have been obvious to all but the most neophyte policy advisers within Liberal ranks. The fact that the idea was being considered at all lends credence to the idea that someone very junior was putting this document together.

The fact that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott approved the policy on Wednesday night after a cursory glance at it probably doesn’t indicate that much; after all, who would reasonably expect Abbott to understand complex matters involving technology policy? The Member for Warringah has never demonstrated any such nous in the past, and is in fact famous for his techno-gaffes. “I’m no Bill Gates” doesn’t even begin to cover the situation.

But the fact that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t seen the policy before it was published is downright damning. Not only has the Earl of Wentworth enjoyed a long-standing close relationship with the policy’s author, Liberal MP and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher, but Turnbull does lead the communications portfolio for the Coalition. All of the measures which the policy outlines would be administered through client departments and regulators under Turnbull as Communications Minister. One would think Turnbull should have seen the policy as a basic first step, before it even went to Abbott for the final check mark.

All of this represents a wake-up call for the Coalition. This sort of thing, in a credible political party, shouldn’t happen, pure and simple. There should have been many opportunities through the process of publishing this document for wise heads to send it back for revision.

However, if you want to look for an ultimate culprit for the debacle, I suspect there’s only one real contender: The policy’s nominal author, Paul Fletcher.

For his part, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that Turnbull’s actions as the affair proceeded last night were commendable. The Member for Wentworth was ambushed by the release of the filter policy as he went into a live interview with radio station Triple J; he had no opportunity to do anything other than to follow the party line and support it. To do otherwise, as many politicians have found to their peril, would have been to risk the censure of the party and its leadership.

Put simply, politicians must support their party policy in public, if they want to keep their seats.

However, as soon as Turnbull exited Triple J’s studio, he took immediate action to have the policy revoked; extracting permission to surgically remove its offending sections and returning its pages to the realms of rationality. The Duke of Double Bay then took the necessary step of admitting the Coalition’s mistake in an official media release. Case closed.

But one suspects the case is not closed this afternoon for Paul Fletcher, who doesn’t appear to be returning calls from the media.

After all, one can forgive Tony “no tech-head” Abbott for not fully understanding the mandatory Internet filtering policy Fletcher wrote. And one can hardly blame Turnbull for letting it be published, considering Fletcher didn’t bother send the Member for Wentworth a copy for review. One can even forgive whatever hapless staffer presumably inserted the offending paragraphs in the policy to start with.

But one cannot forgive Fletcher for letting the policy be published. Fletcher is an expert in the communications portfolio, and a long-time critic of Labor’s previous filter policy. You can see the MP flaying Labor for the policy in this 2010 public meeting he attended, hosted by Turnbull in his electorate before the Coalition officially opposed the policy.

Moreover, Fletcher is not a Shadow Minister of any kind. He does not have senior responsibilities at the level that Turnbull, Abbott or Hockey (who was also blindsided by the filter launch) do. He has only a limited amount of responsibility during the current election campaign: To get re-elected (which shouldn’t be a problem, given his 18.2 percent margin in 2010), to deliver an inoffensive online child safety policy sourced from his time on the Parliament’s Joint Committee for Cybersafety over the past few years, and to stay out of trouble.

I think we can safely say that the Member for Bradfield abjectly failed at most of these basic tasks.

Proposing a highly unpopular policy which had trashed Labor’s reputation when it held it? Failing to consult the portfolio Shadow Minister about the policy before publication? Failing to realise that he and the Shadow Minister had personally opposed the same policy under Labor? Leaving the Opposition Leader and several other Shadow Cabinet members in the lurch and taking questions from the media live on radio and television?

If Fletcher wasn’t a sitting MP, one would have to argue that all this was a sackable offence. Certainly I expect that Turnbull has had a few choice words to say to Fletcher this morning. At best, Fletcher has been politically naive; at worst, his actions will be the subject of an internal Liberal Party review.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Fletcher has landed himself in hot water through misspeaking or writing. Seasoned watchers of Australia’s techno-political sphere will remember the opprobrium Fletcher attracted in mid-2011 when he attacked the “discount” NBN pricing of ISPs like Exetel and Dodo. The attacks earned Fletcher a backhander from Dodo chief executive Larry Kestelman at the time.

In August last year the MP heavily criticised what he said were misleading advertorial-style paid articles about the National Broadband Network appearing in Fairfax and News Ltd newspapers. But again, the attack misfired after it was revealed NBN Co hadn’t paid for the coverage. That same month, a fact-checking analysis conducted by Delimiter on an article published by Fletcher highly critical of Labor’s National Broadband Network project found the Liberal MP had made a number of contextually misleading statements.

And the former Optus executive even made the unsightly move back in March 2010 of backing Telstra against proposed government intervention in its business, in a high-profile interview with radio shockjock Alan Jones.

Your writer was particularly disappointed to see Fletcher, in December 2010, questioning whether the NBN would force higher costs on basic voice telephone services. At the time, I wrote: “… frankly, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion right now that the MP is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to criticising the NBN on the basis of basic services. When you roll out fibre internet around the nation and start providing broadband services at 1Gbps, the provision of “basic voice services” at an affordable price is the least of your problems. Basic voice telephony will be virtually free at that point (through Skype, Google Talk etc).”

What we’re seeing here, from Fletcher, is a long-standing trend of low-level inept behaviour that is continually landing him in puddles of hot water in the telecommunications portfolio. That puddle became a downpour yesterday, and I expect the MP’s fortunes in the Coalition will suffer for some while as a result, until he can regain some of his much-needed credibility.

Perhaps Turnbull can send Fletcher to the same “charm remediation” camp where he famously consigned adviser Stephen Ellis to, after Ellis’s outburst last month to anti-Coalition NBN blogger Steve Jenkin. “Equanimity” has been restored, this morning: After a three hour blip, Australia once again has a situation where every major political party remains opposed to mandatory Internet filtering. But let’s hope Turnbull can prevent Fletcher’s next thought bubble from making it into the public domain in quite so high profile a manner.

In August 2010, at the Internet filter forum he held in Paddington with Fletcher by his side, Turnbull proclaimed that Labor’s filter policy was “dead, buried and cremated, and if it shows any signs of revival it will then be exorcised”. No doubt the Shadow Communications Minister was very surprised to find Fletcher, of all people, trying to raise the dead.

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. I agree… massive fail for Fletcher. It does make me question how much Turnbull is on the “inner circle” of minister’s tho. When something like this doesn’t go to him.

    Its not a good showing at all. Hey maybe the Coalition NBN policy will prove to be “accidentally” changed at the last minute ;-)

      • Really, this is one of the best, if not the best, things that could have happened for opponents of mandatory internet filtering.

        It would hugely affect the credibility of the Liberals if during their time in office they tried to implement this policy, which has pretty obviously been on their internal agenda.

  2. Methinks you let Malcolm off too lightly. Malcolm clearly thought the cyber-safety policy was so unimportant he didn’t ask to see it at any stage.

    Yes, maybe fast action afterwards, but let’s just be thankful he is not proposed as Minister for Defence or Foreign Affairs.

    Ohh sorry – I didn’t know he was pressing THAT red button.

    • The whole point of the cyber-safety policy is that it’s supposed to be unimportant — it’s just a sap to the right-wing base of part of the Coalition. It’s supposed to be harmless, inoffensive, and do some good, without creating a huge clusterfuck like Labor’s Internet filter policy did. No wonder Turnbull thought Fletcher could handle it by himself. In fact, as it turns out, he couldn’t even do that.

  3. “But one suspects the case is not closed this morning for Paul Fletcher, who doesn’t appear to be returning calls from the media.”

    We regret to inform you Fletcher is unavailable until further notice, he is in hospital for surgeons are trying to remove deeply indented shoeprints from his ass

    PS When did Paul Fletcher join the Aus Christian LoonyLobbies…

    • What I find amazing is that it’s Turnbull, not Fletcher, who’s copping all the heat for this one, when Fletcher sent the policy to Abbott without sending it to Turnbull first. What was Turnbull supposed to do when he was on Triple J? Ignore the document from the Liberal campaign website, which Abbott had personally approved?

      • You’re acting as though Turnbull is innocent of policy within his portfolio, just because someone else announced it. That explains why Conroy wasn’t pilloried for the Labor filter, despite it’s direction coming from elsewhere. Right? Oh, wait..

        On the contrary, that he seemingly wasn’t involved in this policy choice, as you suggest, speaks volumes. It’s his portfolio, how did it get to public release, without his knowledge, at any point?!

        More going on here than just a dumb idea at the last minute.

      • “What I find amazing is that it’s Turnbull, not Fletcher, who’s copping all the heat for this one, when Fletcher sent the policy to Abbott without sending it to Turnbull first. What was Turnbull supposed to do when he was on Triple J? Ignore the document from the Liberal campaign website, which Abbott had personally approved?”

        The whole thing is a bit of a debarkle for them really, for a couple of angles.

        Tony should have had a feeling of déjà vu that alerted him to this being an issue:

        Tony should also have also run it past his shadow Minister for the portfolio, just from a due process and common courtesy angle. Are things really that bad between them that he didn’t think to check?

        Then there is the issue that they aren’t even in government yet and we are already getting stuff-ups…

        Considering how tight-lipped they’ve been around everything, I’m a bit concerned about what other “surprises” may yet unfold.

      • Fletcher’s role here was completely unremarkable. Many politicians have wanted to control the internet and/or stop the porn. Issues like this have been used as bartering chips with nutjob senators many times. Yawn, we’ve seen this movie before.

        Turnbull’s role was VERY remarkable. Either he approved the policy and hoped to slip it through, or he didn’t, demonstrating a lack of authority. He’s the relevant shadow minister. Why wasn’t the policy vetted by him? Why did he feel obligated to defend it on radio? He wasn’t ambushed on Hack, he was aware of it an hour before going on air (if SMH is to be believed).

        If the story being spun is true, why did Fletcher choose to not discuss with Turnbull a policy area that is widely known to be politically dangerous?

        If the story being spun is true, why did Turnbull take no interest in policies being released in his own policy portfolio? Are there other communications policies that Turnbull doesn’t care about?

  4. It was an idiotic release so close to the election.

    However, far from this being just a bit of a mistake, what I find appalling is that the communications portfolio opposition minister, had no clue. None.

    How on earth do you get to such a point in policy release that the guy who’d supposedly table it into parliament, has no freaking clue it even exists?

    It’s becoming apparent Turnbull isn’t being kept abreast of party politics. That’s a bit of a worry if you’re likely to be on the front bench, init?

  5. He’s copping the flak because he’s the Shadow Minister for Telecommunications. It’s his responsibility. Doesn’t matter if it was someone else who fucked up, Turnbull’s responsible.

    • This.

      We held Conroy accountable for Labor’s failed attempt to launch a mandatory filter. He was the comms minister, it was his patch and he took an absolute drumming for it. Rightly so.

      Remember, this whole policy was originally published as a mandatory, opt-out filter. Not some “unimportant, sap” policy.

      If labor tried to launch it again, 48 hours before an election, regardless of who actually announced it, you can bet your arse that the media would hold Albo accountable.

  6. What will be interesting will be the damage this causes them at the election. Hopefully lots from my point of view.

    • Not necessarily many. The Postal votes will have already happened for the most part.

  7. At this stage of the election, I’m giving no free passes at all.

    Turnbull should have known something was coming, and had soundbites ready. I’ll give a little credit because he was ambushed, but SOMETHING should have gone past him. This, or whatever the official doco was meant to be, it doesnt matter. If he understood something was coming, and simply commented on the proper one versus the one that came out, again, a little credit would be due. But he didnt, he just stated party policy without anything specific.

    Fletcher, no passes at all. Ball dropped, document fail, clusterfuck activated.

    Abbott, no passes either. He’s the leader of the party for Christs sake, he needs to understand these things. Its his job. And in this day and age, not understanding technology is a massive negative, and something that will repeatedly bite him if he is PM for the next 3 years.

    How can he endorse something he doesnt understand?

    Then there’s the timing. Whether it was an error or not, who thought it was a good idea to release it no better than a day out from the election? Sorry, thats a fail for the entire party for even contemplating it in the first place.

    Someone in a position of authority should have realised that and prevented it from being released, even if it was the proper document.

    If this is what we’re to expect from the Liberals, we’re in trouble. If people think Labor’s on the nose, how do they justify this?

  8. Ren,
    They still tried to slip through policy at the last minute. That’s a problem with the Party and their politics, not one junior member.

    Turnbull still supported the document in its key particulars. He knew what he was saying. If he disagreed with it, if he thought for a second it sounded like an error, he could have stopped talking and either checked or refused to comment – I’ve seen him do that in interviews in the past when asked questions on policies or statements he hadn’t been briefed on. Why did he follow the policy so closely if he thought it was the opposite of their position?

    • Aye I agree with this, trying to do a slippery one just before the election.
      God help us if this party wins :(

    • The name is Renai.

      “They still tried to slip through policy at the last minute.”

      I think you need to check your definition of “they”. Turnbull didn’t try and slip it through — he got it repealed asap. Fletcher and Abbott, yes.

      • Really? I’ve seen you respond to Ren on numerous occasions and you’ve never objected when I’ve personally referred to you as Ren in the past, going back at least a year now. Apologies if I’ve caused offence somehow, but by that statement it seems that you have taken a personal dislike to me as an individual, which is pretty disappointing – we may not see eye to eye on everything, but until this point I had at least respected your journalistic integrity even if your personal perspective was different (which doesn’t make it bad – difference is a good thing.

        They = the Liberal Party, of course, of which Malcom Turnbull is a key member and representative. It was clear I was talking about the party because, you know, I said it in the sentence that followed. You can’t separate MT from the Liberal party on that issue because you can’t have MT without the rest of the Liberal Party. You also can’t blame Fletcher and let the whole party off the hook when it was the methods of the party that allowed the situation to occur – if they were passing and publishing policy in a normal, reasonable manner this never would have happened.

        Your article also wasn’t about whether or not MT was personally responsible – as per the title, your article was about whether this was all on Fletcher’s head or was a problem with the Liberal Party generally. My statement demonstrates that regardless of Fletcher’s personal responsibility, the Liberal Party’s tactics provided a situation whereupon any minor issue could result in a colossal screw up as seen here, and that _is_ ‘their’ fault and their failure.

        My statements about Turnbull were on the following paragraph, which means a break in specific reference – if I’d wished to continue to talk about the previous ‘they’ while referring to Turnbull there would have been no paragraph break.

        So no, there’s nothing at all wrong with my definition of ‘they’, because they refers to the Liberal Party. What is your definition?

        • Dude lots of people don’t like it when others creative diminutives of their names. It’s not a big deal — but my name is not “Ren”.

          My objection to your post was because you seem to be alleging some huge conspiracy to get this through at the last minute … when it seems clear that it was a mistake. Why else would Turnbull have revoked it immediately?

          “regardless of Fletcher’s personal responsibility, the Liberal Party’s tactics provided a situation whereupon any minor issue could result in a colossal screw up as seen here, and that _is_ ‘their’ fault and their failure.”

          I agree with this, and I think it sums it up well. There is an issue in the Coalition’s policy development and verification procedure.

          • Fair enough – My apologies, I shall ensure that I always refer to you as Renai forthwith :-)

            No, I wasn’t suggesting there was a ‘huge conspiracy’ to get this particular item through (or at least, that wasn’t my intention) just that pushing through any policies in the last minute like this is dishonest and bad policy.

          • Occam’s Razor says Paul is an incompetent, there need be no further explanation :o)

          • Given the choice between a conspiracy and a stuff-up, the result is usually a stuff-up.

            And Fletcher has always seemed to have the ‘ability’ to attract the latter wherever he goes.

  9. If Paul Fletcher is not returned, or is sacked by the LNP, it’s highly unlikely he will ever be landing a senior role in a blue chip company again after all his publically exposed gaffes.

    That aside, I’m quite impressed by the write up on the whole event, but still don’t trust that this was a simple mistake. There are clearly ultra conservatives in the conservative LNP that would like to see an internet filter implemented, and it’s not like there was only a handful of people required to put together the content and authorisation for this to go to press.

    The document, as originally published, was not the work of one person. A group of people, an MP and the party campaign organisers were all involved prior to this hitting the air.

  10. Renai, if the timestamps on the, all of 10 whole pages, of ICT policy released can be believed, it was produced at 7:40pm the night before (according to several Twitter users)…..yet Turnbull had no idea at 4pm the following afternoon??

    How is it possible he didn’t read, again, the whole of 10 pages, that applied to his portfolio before it was publicly released over 18 hours later??

    Sorry, but while it’s clear Paul Fletcher has alot to answer for, so does Turnbull.

    Communications is his portfolio. Though apparently, not his forte….

    • I agree Turnbull should have known about this, but surely it was incumbent upon Fletcher to at least forward the Shadow Minister a copy of the policy for review? How was Turnbull supposed to know it was finished?

      There’s no evidence of wrongdoing from Turnbull at this point — on the contrary, he reversed the policy the first chance he got.

      • @Renai

        I think this represents a failing of the Coalition to have a correct procedure for policy review.

        Surely, any policy that is going to be released, should go through the member responsible for the management of that portfolio?

        So either their procedure is non-existent….which makes the veracity of their claims that all policies are “fully-costed and ready to go” very dubious. Or Turnbull failed in his duty to review all policy.

        As you say there is no evidence that he was aware of the policy. But that doesn’t say whether that was because he didn’t review it or because the procedure for him to do so, ie. Paul writes it and sends it through for sign off to the head of the portfolio, was not in place.

        Either way, Paul is not the only guilty party here. Either the party as a whole in its’ review process or Turnbull as failing to do his job as head of portfolio. While I don’t like Turnbull as a politician much anymore thanks to his performance over the NBN, I do have to say it stretches credulity to say he was silly enough to simply “sign on the dotted line” about this policy without reviewing it if he was given the chance to review it. Which says to me he wasn’t. Which points to a failing of the party procedure as a whole.

          • Something hideously embarrassing and highly visible happens to the predecessor who rates higher in “preferred Leader” polls than Tony Abbott… something that would never have happened had Tony Abbott just given him a heads-up to warn him before the shit hit the fan.

            Boy, doesn’t sound at all like a hospital pass.

      • Well, the second chance he got, really. He defended it on Triple J’s Hack program, and he was clearly aware of the policy before his appearance on the show. Only later did the excuses come out, Tony’s “cursory glance”, Turnbull’s “poorly worded document”. Frankly, I don’t buy it. I don’t know how anyone could.

        Anyway, it’s all moot, now. It doesn’t matter that Turnbull is a snake, if one can believe the Australian, he’s already in, and the Liberals have won the lower house by a margin of 40 seats while also gaining majority of the upper house. I might take an overseas holiday. See you in three years.

  11. Anyone know if Fletcher has any links to the ACL… this has Jim and Lyles idiot smell all over it…

  12. Signing off on a document you haven’t read or don’t understand is always a good idea right?

    • I have a problem with how easily Abbott has gotten away with his “I’m no tech-head” routine.

      Frankly, he needs to take some more responsibility. I don’t expect politicians to know everything, but I do expect them to learn very, very quickly – and I do expect them to take the time to become familiar with projects of this scale.

      It would only take an hour or two to get him up to speed on all he needs to know, with a refresher every now and then. Given the sheer scale of this project that is not too much to ask. In fact, it is the very least we should expect from him.

      He tries to disarmingly bury his head in the sand, appealing to the egos of ‘tech heads’ while simultaneously appearing sympathetic to those who are not tech heads. So far this has worked for him and he has been able to display total ignorance of a topic – while also having strong views on it – and people just accept that at face value.

      Sorry Tony, it isn’t that you are no Bill Gates, it is that you have failed to take responsibility. Either that or you are such a slow learner that you can only be a liability to our country.

      • Yea, except the opinions of those who are actually informed, those who consider the facts before drawing any conclusions, their opinions don’t count when the vast majority support him and are putting him in power with little scrutiny and zero interest in evidence, facts, accountability or even honesty (not that Labor’s track record on honest politics and statements has been great the past few months, something I have been extremely disappointed by which is why Labor won’t be high on my ballot, but they’ll still be above the LNP by a fair margin).

        • The biggest issue with Labor was the disunity. A positive side-effect of the distrust, was their policies were scrutinised very well, so it’s no wonder they actually worked OK (the policies that is), and why the Liberals have taken so many of them on-board.

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