hope you’re having a great Monday and are slowly starting to wind down for Christmas! It certainly feels like there is rather too much going on for this time of year, but I have great confidence that shortly we will all settle into heading to the beach and swilling delicious Coopers Pale Ale from the traditional stubby holders ;)
Now this will be a rather unusual article for Delimiter, so bear with me while I explain.
In most articles that I publish, I try and inform you guys about things that are happening, delivering news and insight, as well as my opinion about events. However, in this article I’m asking for your help instead.
As you are most likely aware, right now I am heavily engaged in writing a book on technology policy, entitled The Frustrated State: How terrible tech policy is deterring digital Australia. It’s due to be published in mid-2016.
A number of the chapters in this book will actively deal with technology policy promulgated by the previous Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments.
For example, I have devoted two chapters of the book to examining the early years of the National Broadband Network policy — both Labor’s initial, $4.7 billion Fibre to the Node-based NBN policy, as well as the $43 billion Fibre to the Premises policy which replaced it.
Another chapter of the book is largely concerned with the mandatory Internet filter which the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments attempted to implement in the years from 2007.
I’ve spoken to quite a few people already for these chapters — people from the private sector, people from the public sector. Insiders and outsiders. And I’m building a reasonably detailed and coherent picture of how the events I am examining in these chapters came to take place, as well as their significance.
Along the way, I am starting to see trends and lessons from the past emerge that will hopefully guide policymakers as to how we can avoid the mistakes of the past, when developing new tech policy for the future. Things are taking shape and I am close to publishing drafts of some chapters to key Kickstarter backers of the book.
However, there is one critical figure who keeps on dodging my attempts to speak to him about these books: Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
For a number of months now, I have been politely requesting of his staff that Senator Conroy allow me to drop in to his Senate office to catch up with him about these and other issues.
I would like to ask Conroy a number of questions about the NBN policy he authored many years ago. I would like to ask him questions about his mandatory Internet filter policy. And, in point of fact, I would like to ask Conroy for his views on the current situation with respect to the NBN.
None of this is likely to be stressful for the veteran Labor Senator. In fact, I think he will quite enjoy musing about his legacy. I’m sure there will be quite a few laughs along the way.
The questions don’t have to be on the record, and I don’t have to quote him on Delimiter or in The Frustrated State. He is completely free not to answer any question he chooses — he can tell me to get nicked at any time during the conversation. And I can even fit in with his schedule. I can rock up at the Senate at 8am in the morning or 10pm at night to catch up with him — it’s all the same to me. I’m used to hanging around Parliament House at odd hours.
All I really want, when it comes down to it, is to catch up with Conroy for a casual chinwag about the past decade of tech policy — a decade in which he was a pivotal national figure. I first interviewed Conroy some ten years ago. I’d like to see what he thinks now. It’s not a big deal. I just want to chew the fat and try to understand things.
But so far Conroy has proven unwilling to talk. He won’t talk about the old NBN — or the new one. He won’t talk Internet filtering. He won’t talk about anything.
His office — and I have reached out to three separate Labor staffers to try and catch up with him — won’t even answer the question of whether he will approve or deny an interview. This has been going on for several months, over many phone calls and emails. And still, no answers are forthcoming.
Conroy is perfectly happy to blast the Coalition in the Senate over the NBN. But when it comes to real thought — applying grey matter to the tech policy field — he is proving recalcitrant. Almost anyone else in Parliament House is happy to speak to me about almost anything I ask. But Conroy — ironically, considering the number of articles I have written about the Senator over a ten year period — is proving to be the sticking point.
To me this is all quite puzzling. Since I joined the Press Gallery in Canberra several months ago, I’ve had a number of brief interactions with the former Communications Minister. He’s spoken to me several times during NBN Senate Select and Estimates committee hearings. And he’s even jokingly heckled me from the floor of the Senate on one of the first days in which I took a seat in the Senate Press Gallery. I speak to Labor staff regularly about the NBN.
So why doesn’t Conroy want to catch up? Is it Delimiter? Is it the subject areas (the NBN and Internet filtering)? Is he trying to protect his Ministerial legacy from being examined? It’s all theoretically possible.
But I don’t think we should let him get away with it. Personally I think it’s very important that a figure such as Conroy — who has been pivotal in setting Australian technology policy for ten years — reflect on that policy and help to stimulate discussion about better technology policy in future. It’s not enough for Conroy to be a ‘factional warlord’ and a Labor Party warrior slamming the Coalition. He should also be serving the public interest.
So today I humbly ask all Delimiter readers for a little help in convincing Senator Conroy to open up.
If you could contact his office letting him know that you think he should talk to Delimiter — and indeed other media outlets, if they ask — about matters of technology policy, that would be very much appreciated. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or his other contact details are listed on his parliamentary website.
As I publish this article, Conroy is sitting in the Senate helping out with Question Time and tapping away on his iPad. But shortly he’ll be back in his office, and he’ll most likely be there for the next week.
Let’s send a message to Conroy that it’s not OK to duck the scrutiny of the media on issues of technology policy. And that he still has a responsibility to the nation to help shape the future in this area. Anything less is an abrogation of his responsibility to serve the public interest. It is not enough for former Ministers to be able to ignore the past and hide from the future. This is one Senator who — after twenty years in Federal Parliament — still has more to do.