full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
13 September 2013
Tony Abbott’s Coalition team has finally won the Federal Election it’s been itching to fight for three very long years. But Malcolm Turnbull’s arrogant response this week to a petition calling for the Coalition to support Labor’s NBN policy shows the conservative side of politics still hasn’t learnt the lesson activists rammed down Labor’s throat in the previous Internet filter and data retention debacles: People power can get unpopular policies changed.
If I had to say what the defining moment of the long-running, five year campaign against Labor’s controversial mandatory Internet filtering policy was, I would have to say it was a short television segment broadcast on the issue on 31 March, 2009, on SBS’s Insight program.
In the segment, outspoken filter critic Mark Newton was asked point blank by host Jennie Brockie whether the Government’s ISP-level mandatory filtering scheme could actually work in a technical sense. It was a question Newton was well-qualified to answer. As a network engineer of 13 years standing at Internode, an organisation regarded as one of the most technically adept in Australia, Newton was at that time regarded as an expert in his field. After all, should it go ahead and become law for Australian ISPs to filter objectionable content from reaching their customers, it would be precisely engineers like Newton who would be responsible for the implementation.
The engineer’s answer, typically for someone of a technical bent, was short and to the point. “No. No, of course not.” Newton replied. His whole attitude implied that such a claim was obviously preposterous. And his words carried a remarkable amount of weight.
In a splendid display of televisual craftmanship, just after Newton gave his answer, SBS spliced in a shot of then-Communications Minister, the chief proponent of the filter, who was sitting in the audience on the other side of the room. Conroy’s outraged expression, expressing disbelief at Newton’s no-nonsense answer, has been dubbed online as his “owned face”, and became a defining image of the campaign. It starkly demonstrated to the tens of thousands of Australians actively campaigning to strike down the filter that their efforts were getting under Conroy’s skin, in the most personal way.
There was, perhaps, one other moment of the campaign which had as much potency.
In June 2010, Labor Senator Kate Lundy, who has long enjoyed a solid professional relationship with Conroy due to their mutual interest in the technology portfolio, broke ranks with her fellow Labor parliamentarians to proffer an amendment to the party’s controversial filtering plan. Faced with the prospect of taking the unpopular policy to the election, Lundy attempted to sway her colleagues to support an opt-in option for the filter, which would allow those Australians concerned about objectionable Internet content to have it blocked; and everyone else to have their open Internet as per normal. It was a way for Labor to placate conservative religious groups while not alienating the rest of the nation.
Conroy’s response, when asked about Lundy’s amendment at a press conference in Sydney, was biting and extremely cold. “I’m not into opting in to child porn,” the Minister said, handing the basest of all insults to his Senate colleague of more than decade’s standing and confirming many Australians’ opinion of him as an Internet arch-villain.
If you step away from the filter issue for a second and examine Conroy’s career as Communications Minister, what you will find in general was that the Labor Senator was extraordinarily effective in the role. The six years in which Conroy led the portfolio for Labor were characterised by one massive success story: Conroy’s massive shifting of the goal posts in the telecommunications industry and creation of the National Broadband Network, an epic government project which the Coalition has been forced to largely swallow, and which is gradually resulting in massively beneficial broadband service delivery outcomes for all Australians.
No other politician in Australian history has been able to have the effect upon Australia’s technology sector that Conroy had. The NBN was, and is, the be-all and end-all technology policy that will unlock the potential of Australia’s digital economy, while also having the side benefit of finally restraining Telstra from uncompetitive market behaviour.
When Conroy resigned from his post in June, following the return of Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership, some few Australians did pay tribute to the Labor Senator for this vision.
However, for the vast majority of the population, Conroy might as well have never come up with the far-reaching and visionary NBN policy. He might as well not have pushed it for six years continuously. All the late nights, all the briefings with senior industry figures, all the legislation drafting, all the cabinet discussions, all the myriad decisions, in short, all the sheer blood, sweat and tears which Conroy put into the NBN, might as well not have happened.
Because what most Australians chiefly remember about Conroy is the Senator’s extreme attempts at pushing the Internet filter policy on the nation. They remember Conroy’s scorn for Newton’s eminently sensible anti-filter argument on SBS. They remember Conroy implying that Lundy was into child pornography, and they remember the Senator making that same argument about Electronic Frontiers Australia advocates in Parliament.
They remember Conroy spending hard, long years pushing an unpopular and technically unworkable policy on Australia; pushing it no matter the political cost; no matter the sensible arguments against it; no matter that the policy was no more than a footnote in Labor’s election platform in November 2007; and no matter that most of Australia had no idea it even existed as a policy until Labor started to enact it.
Despite all his accomplishments as Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy will never be able to live down the opprobrium of his role as chief Internet filter proponent. That label will dog him for the rest of his days.
How ironic then, given Malcolm Turnbull’s long-standing opposition to Labor’s filter (the Earl of Wentworth was one of the first Liberal MPs to come out against the policy), that Turnbull should find himself almost precisely in Conroy’s shoes, following the Coalition’s long-expected Federal Election victory on the weekend.
It’s remarkable, if you sit back and consider it for a second, how much Turnbull’s situation today mimics Conroy’s, when Conroy first took over the Communications portfolio.
Like Kevin Rudd in 2007, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won last weekend’s election primarily on policies unrelated to the technology portfolio. Abbott and his team campaigned long and hard on traditional Australian political issues such as financial management, management of the economy, and immigration. If you were to list the three terms which most often came out of Abbott’s mouth over the past three years, you’d have to say they were “stop the boats”, “return the economy to surplus” and “repeal the carbon tax”, or words to that effect.
Research has consistently shown that it’s on these kinds of macro issues that the Australian population elects its Governments.
But along the way, all kinds of other policies get snuck in to the agenda of the day. In 2007, prompted by conservative religious groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, Labor inserted what it likely thought was a harmless minor policy; the Internet filter policy. In 2013, the Coalition’s rival National Broadband Network policy made it across the line.
If asked to vote for these policies independently, there is absolutely no doubt that the Australian electorate would not support them. Polls have consistently shown over the life of both policies that the majority of the Australian public was against each.
This situation, where unpopular policies sneak into a Government’s agenda under cover of popular ones, has a long history of occurring in western democracies such as those found in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which tend to be dominated by just two major political parties. Voters have little choice, in the end, but to support a mixed bag of policies, including some they like and some that they loathe, in order to get the Government in power that they more or less trust.
But there’s also a long history demonstrating what happens in the case of these unpopular policies: Shortly after the election, activist groups arise in the community attempting to get the unpopular elements of the new Government’s policy repealed.
This situation was particularly evident in the case of the Internet filter campaign. In fact, in a very real sense, it was the campaign to repeal the filter policy which taught Australia’s broad cadre of technology-related interest groups how to conduct this kind of campaign in the first place.
The campaign to repeal Conroy’s Internet filter started when activists like Newton got together with specialist digital rights advocacy groups like Electronic Frontiers Australia and started complaining about he issue in public. Sensing a controversy, it didn’t take long for Australia’s technology press to catch wind of the issue and start running an ongoing series of articles attacking the Government on the topic. Gradually, other, more mainstream organisations got involved. Political parties like the Greens, civil liberties groups run by lawyers, industry groups run by engineers, Internet service providers and other companies,and eventually, even the mainstream media, parents’ organisations and associations of librarians.
By the time senior Opposition figures like Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Turnbull himself finally got the courage to speak up about opposing Labor’s Internet filter plans, it was apparent that virtually everybody who was anybody was opposing the policy; and only a handful of organisations were supporting it; chiefly Labor and conservative Christian lobbyists. Exit stage left: The filter was unofficially killed in 2010 and finally turfed for good late last year.
The remarkable thing about this process is that it left its stamp on Australia’s technology-related activist community. Because the anti-filter campaign was such a success, future campaigns became easier; all of the organisations had, through the anti-filter campaign, learnt how to work with each other to oppose unpopular government policies. Providing what the Government was proposing was draconian enough, a broad coalition could be formed to get it repealed. The same kind of lessons are being learnt in the United States right now with respect to the National Security Agency’s intrusive surveillance habits, as well as with other digital rights issues in the US over the past several years.
The existence of this institutional knowledge was starkly demonstrated during the similar campaign to repeal another controversial Labor Internet policy: This time focusing on data retention of Australians’ personal communications. Knocking back the Internet filter took Australia’s digital activists the better part of five years; but it took much less time to get rid of data retention.
The idea first arose in June 2010; by early 2013, it was apparent that the policy was almost universally opposed by a wide range of political, commercial and special interest groups, with groups as diverse as the Institute of Public Affairs, the Greens, Electronic Frontiers Australia, telcos such as iiNet, the Pirate Party of Australia, Turnbull and Liberal Party backbenchers, Victoria’s Privacy Commissioner and many other segments of the community vehemently opposing the package as a dramatic and unnecessary intervention in Australians’ private lives.
Just a few months later, Labor backed away from the policy, and that was that: At least until next time the Attorney-General’s Department reanimates it.
In the wake of the Federal Election on the weekend, what we’re seeing is this process starting again. Unlike the Internet filter and data retention, the NBN is a massively popular policy with the electorate; polls have consistently shown over the past three years that around three quarters of the population supports it.
In this case, the Federal Government is planning to dramatically wind back a popular policy, rather than enact an unpopular one, but the activist community has already begun to react in the same way. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are starting to sign online petitions; special interest groups such as digital rights organisations and minor political parties are taking an interest; technical commentators are weighing in. And every issue is being brought back and related to the Coalition’s flawed NBN approach.
The great machine is kicking into gear: Direct democracy in action is flexing its muscles to take on the Government one more time.
Sure, there’s been long-running debate about the differences between the NBN policies of Labor and the Coalition already for several years; particularly hinging on the technical differences between the differing FTTN and FTTP models. However, these issues have always been coloured by the awareness of the general population that the Federal Labor party was imploding due to the ongoing conflict between Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard; and that Labor’s time would inevitably come to an end.
Australia now has the Federal Government it wants — a more stable, disciplined, fiscally conservative Coalition Government led by arch-conservative Tony Abbott. But it’s not enough for the nation to have its cake; it wants to eat it too. As a mass population, Australians voted a Coalition Government in over the weekend; but now it has realised that it also still wants Labor’s NBN policy.
The repercussions for Malcolm Turnbull from this situation are quite staggering. All of a sudden, the Earl of Wentworth, who is used to being on the right side of community activist campaigns (he was against the Internet filter, against data retention, for gay marriage, and for the environment) finds himself irrevocably on the other side of the fence. Suddenly Turnbull is the great Satan: The man who is repealing one of the most popular Australian Government policies of all time: The great digital saviour, the NBN.
Historically, Turnbull has been a master of the use of both traditional and social media to get his point across. However, over the past week especially, the Duke of Double Bay’s power is finding that power twisting in his hands and turning back on himself, as activists use the very same platforms to attack the incoming Communications Minister, and journalists once again sense an opportunity to hold a new Government to account, riding the wave of the will of the people.
Now, Turnbull is an entirely different beast than Conroy: Suave where Conroy is caustic; upper-class where Conroy represents the football-loving hordes; and constantly displaying good humour in the face of adversity, where Conroy just tends to get angry. However, the irony is that the Liberal MP has already fallen into the same trap which befell the Labor Senator: Biting back against his critics.
Turnbull’s terse statement last night informing FTTP activists that they had had their chance at “democracy” during last weekend’s Federal Election, and that the Coalition would not be changing its NBN policy any time soon, could not have been timed or worded more perfectly to fan the flames of dissent regarding the Coalition’s NBN vision. It was a response which Conroy himself, during the height of his filter war, would have been proud of. It was the classicly arrogant response of a politician in power: Disdain for the uneducated opinions of the great unwashed masses.
“Many of the FTTP supporters on Twitter and elsewhere say that they don’t care what it costs or how long it takes – they want fibre to the home regardless,” Turnbull wrote. “That point of view is reckless in the extreme. Every public infrastructure project has to be carefully and honestly analysed so that governments, and citizens, can weigh up the costs and benefits. This study is vital for the public to be fully informed and our redesign of the project will be informed by the result of those studies.”
You’ve had your chance, Turnbull was telling those Australians still in favour of Labor’s FTTP policy: You botched it, and you’re also stupid and need to be educated. Priceless.
The problem for Turnbull — and, in fact, the Coalition at large — is that not only is the incoming Communications Minister on the unpopular side of this debate, but that history is likely to show that those activists pushing for the Coalition to support a FTTP National Broadband Network will eventually get their way.
After all, even Turnbull himself has acknowledged that in the long-term, the Coalition’s FTTN vision is little more than a stepping stone to FTTP. In the extreme long-term, it’s not hard to predict that every last inch of Telstra’s copper network will be upgraded to fibre, as bandwidth demands and the Australian public’s use of technology continues to explode.
One could have reasonably predicted that the debate over the shift to FTTP would have kickstarted as soon as the Coalition had completed construction of its planned FTTN network in 2019. That would be logical; after all, it takes years and years to deploy fibre telecommunications networks. With a merely adequate FTTN NBN in place in 2019, the next step to FTTP, to provide for Australia’s broadband needs for the next 100 years and not the next 15, would have seemed very logical.
However, the FTTP campaigners aren’t going to wait that long. The campaign has already begun.
If they want to know how this campaign will go, Turnbull, and other senior figures in the Coalition, may wish to cast their mind back to the way in which Conroy was forced to deal with the filter issue continuously in the years from 2007 through 2010. Every press conference Conroy held, every television appearance, no matter the ostensible subject, eventually turned to criticism of the mandatory Internet filter policy, because the media knew they could draw blood from the Senator by quizzing him on it.
Malcolm Turnbull’s fate in the next several years of his tenure as Communications Minister, especially if the Coalition’s planned FTTN network takes a while to get off the ground, will take place along similar lines. Every time Turnbull faces the media, every time the Liberal MP talks to the public, he will have to justify why the Coalition is pursuing a FTTN NBN and not a FTTP.
There was a wonderful, if harshly worded comment posted on a Delimiter article last night which summed up this situation entirely. “Bulls**t Mal,” wrote the commenter, “democracy does not happen once every three years. It is an ongoing process. Remember the Labor “clean feed” election promise? They went to an election with that as policy. Activists managed to change Conjob’s mind on that idiocy.” And there are about 360 other similar comments posted under Turnbull’s own article on the subject, mostly slamming the Liberal MP for his arrogance.
In promoting the Coalition’s NBN policy, Turnbull would do well to remember the lesson of the Internet filter. In time, people power always wins. Popular dissent has downed more unpopular political policies than there are pages of history to chronicle. And one politician: No matter how charismatic, cannot stand against the wishes of the 99 percent.