Fiery telco expert with a fibre passion: Michelle Rowland gets a licence to terminate Turnbull


full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
18 October 2013
Image: Parliamentary Broadcasting

With a lengthy history as a telco regulatory lawyer and a passion for the National Broadband Network bordering on an obsession, Labor MP Michelle Rowland is well-qualified indeed to be Labor’s Shadow Assistant Communications Minister. But it’s the Member for Greenway’s penchant for taking Malcolm Turnbull down a notch or five on the floor of the House of Representatives that will have pro-fibre NBN fanbois falling in love with her.

This afternoon, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten appointed former Home Affairs and Justice Minister Jason Clare to be Australia’s new Shadow Communications Minister. Shorten additionally appointed Member for Greenway Michelle Rowland to aid Clare in the portfolio, as Shadow Assistant Communications Minister.

Unfortunately, we don’t know a great deal about Clare’s interest or qualifications for the portfolio; we’ll have to wait until the Member for Blaxland starts talking about the National Broadband Network to find out more about his intentions for it. On the face of it, however, Clare’s appointment is easy to understand. Within Labor’s ranks the MP is widely considered a rising star, demonstrating capable management skills through his handling of the immigration portfolio for the Gillard administration over the past several years and staying cool under fire.

Clare’s appointment to lead Communications for the Opposition can easily be analysed as giving a rising Labor star a chance to take on the Coalition on an issue of national importance which Labor has public support for. Headlining Communications for Labor will give Clare a chance to stay in the spotlight over the next three years, while also bringing energy and ministerial experience to the portfolio.

However, unless you’re a political tragic who spends every spare hour listening to late night debates in the House of Representatives or you happen to live in her Western Sydney electorate of Greenway, you probably would have been surprised by Rowland’s appointment to support Clare in the portfolio. Up until now, after all, Rowland’s name hasn’t been on the list of obvious candidates to sit in the Shadow Communications Ministry.

That list, for most in the telecommunications industry, has generally contained just four names since Labor lost the Federal Election in September.

The most obvious pair in contention for such a role are both darlings of the technology industry in general. Kate Lundy, a perennial favourite for the post, has long distinguished herself through her (predominantly) backbench parliamentary service to the nation’s tech sector, agitating for Government 2.0 and IT startup outcomes for the better part of two decades and dabbling her fingers as much as was allowed in telecommunications.

The other preferred name has been that of Ed Husic, a good-humoured young MP from Western Sydney who earned a name for himself in his first term over the past several years by singlehandedly creating the IT price hike inquiry and bringing global names such as Apple, Microsoft and Adobe very publicly to task.

Yes, with experience, technical understanding, a history of activism in the area and even good relations with recently departed Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Lundy and Husic have both been seen by commentators and industry figures alike as the perfect candidates for the Shadow Ministry, with some favouring both to pick up the baton in a junior/senior team setup of the type introduced by Kevin Rudd just before the election.

Husic in particular had, over the period of the Election and beyond, already been taking the NBN fight directly to Turnbull, filling in for Albanese in debates with the Liberal MP and recently giving an impassioned and fiery speech at the Communications Day Congress in Melbourne this month that reinforced Labor’s vision of universal fibre broadband and sharply denigrated the Coalition’s much more modest alternative.

Lundy and Husic have been so active in the portfolio that Rowland’s appointment today looks a little unusual. Wouldn’t it have been easier, if you wanted a junior Minister to assist Clare, to appoint someone with a little more experience in the portfolio, someone with a higher profile with the telecommunications industry?

However, if you dig a little through Rowland’s background and parliamentary activity, it becomes apparent that far from being an outside chance at a post opposing Turnbull, the Member for Greenway is actually the perfect candidate, with potential in the portfolio very likely exceeding that of both Husic and Lundy, matched with a youthful energy and resilience which is somewhat rare in politics.

The key to understanding Michelle Rowland’s qualifications and passion for the communications portfolio is to understand just how deeply the Labor MP’s experience goes in the area.

After putting herself through high school and a university law degree the hard way — nights and weekends as a checkout operator at a Blacktown supermarket — Rowland joined top-tier law firm Gilbert + Tobin in 2000, where the young lawyer came to specialise in competition and regulation law in the telecommunications, media and technology sectors.

Now, this is hardly a surprise, given that Gilbert + Tobin has long been known for its specialisation in precisely these kinds of area, especially in intellectual property law (the firm represented the movie studios in their Internet piracy lawsuit against iiNet, for example).

However, what some may not realise is just how closely associated Gilbert + Tobin is with Telstra these days.

If most people in the telecommunications industry think about Telstra, they probably commonly believe that the law firm most associated with the company is the firm formerly known as Mallesons Stephen Jaques. There was a time in the middle of last decade when it was commonly believed that Mallesons had whole floors of hundreds of lawyers devoted solely to getting work done for Telstra.

However, what is less known in the industry is that a revamp of Telstra’s legal arrangements which took place in 2009 resulted in a huge slab of work being handed over to Gilbert + Tobin, courtesy of the firm’s expertise and innovative fee structure. During this period, Rowland was a senior lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin and would have been very likely to have been a key resource working on the Telstra account. At the very least we know that Rowland spent time advising telcos on the NBN greenfields issue in 2009 — because the MP has stated in Parliament that she did do so, specifically in the area of greenfields NBN deployments and associated legislation.

If you go back and read the early speeches, particular the maiden speeches of technology-focused Labor politicians such as Husic, Lundy and even Conroy, what you’ll find is that they commonly contain references to the power of technology to change lives. Labor tech-heads often view technology in general as the great leveller; a force that helps give all Australians equal opportunity when it comes to their futures.

If you go back to Rowland’s maiden speech upon entering Parliament in mid-2010, what you see is something very different: A hard-headed, fiery and idealistic take on the NBN specifically, backed by very precise knowledge of the project sourced from her telco regulatory background.

“As a former telco regulatory lawyer, I need to emphasise the importance of the NBN as a piece of fundamental infrastructure reform—something that is often overlooked in the public debate,” Rowland told the chamber on 29 September 2010.

“Let us be clear: the wholesale only, open access infrastructure of the NBN will transform the very structure of the telco sector. By separating the network layer from the services layer, the NBN will facilitate effective competition and choice for all Australians, regardless of where they live or work. It will do this by treating the network—the ducts, the poles, the fibre cables and the electronics that constitute the NBN—as it should be: a national piece of utility infrastructure. One only needs to look at the continued growth of fixed bandwidth—a rate of 20 to 30 percent each year—to realise that Australia’s existing telco infrastructure will shortly pass its use-by date.”

“In 10 or 20 years our children will look back on the current debate about the NBN and will be shocked by the short-sightedness of some of the views expressed about the NBN today, particularly the commentary that is fixated on the download path: the false assumption that the NBN is merely a matter of faster emails or web-surfing. The reality is the NBN is not about the download. It is all about the upload.”

Heady stuff. It’s not idealistic or fluffy — this is nothing like the airy maiden speeches you so often see from first-time MPs. Instead, Rowland was already talking tough, and in detail about the NBN. But wait, it gets better.

29 September 2010 was a pivotal time for the NBN. Just two weeks early, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had finally appointed a Shadow Communications Minister with portfolio experience, political weight and gravitas to take on the increasingly popular NBN policy and challenge then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Malcolm Turnbull had been ordered to “demolish” the NBN and had already brought his wrecking ball out of its retirement from the back bench. The move did not go unnoticed by Rowland, despite the fact that the new MP hadn’t even given her maiden speech yet.

“Some of those opposite have vowed to wage a campaign to destroy the NBN. I say here today: I vow that I will destroy that campaign,” Rowland warned Turnbull in the chamber. Strong words for the MP’s first speech in the House of Representatives, and words that were noted by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard the next day, who described Rowland’s speech as “a great dissertation about the National Broadband Network”.

It wasn’t to be the last time Rowland was to cross swords on the floor of the chamber with the Coalition on the issue of the NBN. Just a month later in late October 2010, Rowland took great glee in demolishing Liberal MP and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher in one of her first debates on the NBN. Brandishing a copy of the Coalition’s poorly received broadband policy launched during that year’s election by the hapless Shadow Minister Tony Smith, Rowland said:

“We heard about Labor’s NBN plan being cobbled together. If you want to see some- thing that was cobbled together, the Liberal Party’s broadband and telecommunications policy is a complete embarrassment. Of all the laughs I got during the campaign, this gave me the most. This was an absolute special. I prefer to call it the dial-up policy actually. It is a very good dial-up policy. I would be absolutely embarrassed to have gone to the election with this.”

And then, attacking Turnbull directly: “I was very interested to read this in yesterday’s Australian: ‘NBN a conspiracy against taxpayers, warns Turnbull’. Yes, it is a conspiracy right up there with the imaginary man on the moon and who shot JFK! I can see how the member for Wentworth would think this is a conspiracy as it is a conspiracy of universal high-speed broad- band for all Australians, not just those in Vaucluse and Mosman.”

Oddly, given the Member for Wentworth’s debating prowess and charisma, it has actually often been the Member for Greenway who has gotten the better of her older and more experienced parliamentary colleague in their exchanges over the past several years.

Take this verbal jousting match between Rowland and Turnbull in July 2011, enshrined in video on Rowland’s Facebook page. After some back and forth between the two MPs, in which Rowland starkly displayed her incredibly strong knowledge of Australia’s telecommunications regulatory regime and how it relates to the NBN, the Member for Greenway came out out with this pearler of a diatribe against the different class origins between Turnbull’s background and her own:

“… over the course of this fibre rollout conversation that has been going on between this government and industry, this government has listened to industry. That is why we have ended up with a bill that is ready to go through the parliament tonight and is able to provide certainty not only to the industry but also to consumers and to all those people in my electorate who are asking not why we are getting it but when.

“I know the member for Wentworth does not suffer from this problem because he has the privilege of representing an electorate that ranks very high in broadband accessibility by households. He is right up there with the best. But unfortunately the member for Hinkler’s electorate is not and the member for Cowper’s electorate is not. Greenway, which I represent, needs to do a lot better, and that is why this government has chosen Riverstone as the site of the first Sydney metro rollout.

The member for Wentworth can try to make fun of my position all he likes, but he is merely leaving himself exposed as someone who is out of touch with reality and with the consumers of this country. We know he has one remit—to destroy the NBN—and that is exactly what he is seeking to do on this occasion.”

And in March that same year, Rowland delivered the following riposte to Turnbull after the Member for Wentworth spent considerable time rubbishing the NBN in Parliament:

“I would like to thank the member for Wentworth because, just as the member for Casey, the former shadow minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, gave me the most hilarious laughs during the federal election campaign with this policy—which remains, may I say, coalition policy today—the member for Wentworth has followed it up with an article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald where he quotes Deng Xiaoping, no less: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom in broadband field’. He has taken inspiration from [Chinese Communist Leader] Deng Xiaoping. I do believe he is leading a Maoist insurgency against the Leader of the Opposition. We welcome that on this side.

The other thing I would say, while we are quoting Deng Xiaoping, is that another one of his best quotes is ‘To get rich is glorious.’ He is hardly the man who is going to deliver accessible and affordable broadband for all when he takes inspiration from Deng Xiaoping.

One of the other things that is so hilarious about the article in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning is the member for Wentworth’s assertion that Japan and Korea have shown no significant productivity benefits from having a fibre-to-the-home, high-speed broadband network.

I think we should help him pack his Louis Vuitton case, put him on his Learjet and send him to Tokyo and Seoul to see exactly what productivity gains are being made there. And do not take it from me. Let us have a look at the International Telecommunication Union and their case study of Korea. They say, ‘Well, isn’t it amazing that Korea has managed to do so well’. In fact, they call Korea an economic miracle in growth thanks to ICT. This is de- spite the fact that Korea is not demographically suited to having the highest internet penetration in Asia. It is not demographically suited to have the best communications with other countries, because they have their own language. Yet they have such a high rate of productivity growth, and why is that? That is because of their investments over many dec- ades in high-speed fibre broadband networks.”

If you visit Rowland’s Facebook page, you can find a number of videos documenting the Member for Greenway’s parliamentary progress in dealing with the broadband arguments of the Coalition. In each case, Rowland has passionately used the advantageous facts inherent in Labor’s all-fibre National Broadband Network policy to contemptuously demolish the Coalition’s arguments; with energy and using telecommunications industry terms that one suspects many of the other politicians in the chamber may not quite understand. You can find a list of videos of her parliamentary speeches on the NBN here:

Witnessing Rowland’s performances, it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain other politician focused on positive social outcomes generated by the delivery of good telecommunications policy. Another well-educated politician who has a habit of using their extensive knowledge of telecommunications in contemptuous takedowns of Opposition politicians. Another hard-talking member of Labor’s right faction.

I speak of course, of the good Senator Stephen Conroy.

Rowland’s personal style in Parliament, her knowledge of telecommunications regulation, her contempt for the personal fortunes of rich Liberal politicians such as Turnbull and even her liking for sports such as cricket which are popular with the general public (Conroy is a soccer tragic) are all things the Member for Greenway shares with Conroy. And the pair are from the same faction within Labor — the Right.

With all this in mind, it is perhaps not unexpected that it has been Conroy himself agitating for the MP to be appointed Shadow Communications Minister. “Senator Conroy, a powerful factional leader in the Victorian right, was understood to be negotiating behind closed doors for Ms Rowland to be offered the role,” the Financial Review reported this week. It’s not hard to see why Conroy might be a fan.

Ultimately, Rowland didn’t win the post Conroy wanted for her — Clare did, and Rowland came in second. However, that doesn’t mean the Member for Greenway has any less of a mandate to step up her attacks on Turnbull over the NBN. As Shadow Assistant Communications Minister, and importantly (unlike Conroy), holding a seat in the House of Representatives, Rowland has now been given all the permission the MP needs to get her hands dirty in Communications, a field she is an acknowledged expert in.

It’s also a perfect time for Rowland to enter the fray.

A series of populist moves over the past several weeks — from crowdfunding campaigns funding Freedom of Information requests for Turnbull’s Ministerial briefing papers to pro-fibre advertisements in his local newspaper, to online petitions demanding the Coalition support Labor’s NBN model — not to mention the overwhelming evidence of long-term support for Labor’s NBN policy in general, has starkly displayed the fact that the Australian public overwhelmingly wants fibre broadband to their houses and business premises — and they want the Government to deliver it for them.

As ISPs such as iiNet have pointed out, there are countless questions which still need to be answered regarding the Coalition’s own NBN policy. Then too, Turnbull has a massive job of work ahead of him over the next several months to get the project back on track. Clare is a heavy hitter, and a solid appointment to the Communications portfolio. But we suspect that it’ll be Rowland, with her deep industry expertise and history opposing Turnbull, who will really stick it to the new Minister when it comes to the NBN. We’re sure the Member for Greenway will relish the task. It’s a new Parliament, with new players. Game on.


  1. As a former resident of Greenway I had to enlist the services of Michelle in going right to the top of Telstra when their top technicians did not understand the capabilities of HFC in providing a technically different connection. She understood the tech capabilities and knew all the right people to contact despite Telstra’s reluctance to provide the service which is now operating successfully due to her.
    She has the up to date technical comprehension and experience to make a “meal” out of Malcolm Turnbull who appears to be behind in knowledge of developments in communications technology and lacks foresight in NBN issues.

    • Interesting. From what I have heard Rowland does get very involved with her constituents’ issues, especially with broadband. If you check out her Facebook page, there are quite a few comments backing her efforts to get better broadband in Greenway.

      Watching her speeches last night (I spent a good couple of hours checking out her parliamentary performance), I would have to say Rowland has better comprehension of the technology involved in the telecommunications landscape than anyone apart from perhaps Conroy and Turnbull. And even compared to those two, Rowland displayed a real ‘familiarity’ with telco industry terms that we normally don’t get anywhere else.

      I think the MP is going to do very well in the portfolio, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her eventually promoted to Shadow Minister, perhaps with a view to being Minister in a Labor administration after 2019. If I were her, that’s where I would be aiming — with the proviso that she also needs to focus heavily on holding her seat at the next couple of elections. She really has a very slim margin in Greenway — and with a star candidate, it could easily go Liberal again.

  2. I live in the electorate & she is so accessible. – Out of the disaster of the last election, she actually increased her majority.

    • Good to hear that Rowland is accessible. However I would point out that she didn’t increase her majority in Greenway by very much — it remains very much a marginal seat, and it would have very likely been lost to the Liberals if they had had a credible candidate.

    • Hmm … not sure what you are saying about a “stacked deck”? Just because Turnbull and Switkowski have parachuted in an executive to aid with the review, doesn’t mean that they will necessarily find what the Coalition wants them to find. Rousselot is actually a capable executive of strong standing in the telecommunications industry — if you’re going to allege that he’s just a Turnbull stooge, you have to come up with more evidence than just saying that they’ve known each other and worked together before.

      Turnbull has been very vocal about stating that he wants the review to be independent and conducted by NBN Co staff — not the Coalition or consultants etc. He’s going to have to publish the results of that review — and if they are suspect, the industry is going to be able to very quickly point that out.

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