David Havyatt
September 19, 2016

Stephen Conroy, a man of [f]action

Vale

Stephen Conroy, a man of [f]action

David Havyatt with Stephen Conroy: A summary of a political man of action

Stephen Conroy really does do things his way. Last Thursday, at 8:53pm at the end of the sitting week, he got up to make a second reading speech on the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016, and after a few words tabled his resignation speech.

It wasn’t until Hansard was published at ten the next morning that anyone knew what he’d done. By then he was clear of the building.

I have no idea whether this method was dictated by the fact that the sitting was already running on or was already planned. However, it is the considered opinion of a number of ex-Conroy staffers that it was just as well, because he would have been blubbering thirty seconds into that speech.

But prior to that tabling, what were Stephen Conroy’s last words in the Parliament?

Simply, "Could I take this opportunity to thank and congratulate Senator Cormann for his constructive approach to resolving some of the difficult issues. Both sides were involved in a little bit of give and take, but the approach taken by Senator Cormann speaks volumes for him."

There you have it, the final words in the Senate by one of Labor's great combatants were words of praise for one of his opponents.

I think that sums Stephen up perfectly, tough but fair. Just as I am sure he will teach his daughter Isabella is the right way to approach her soccer.

In the days since his resignation, different tributes have been paid to him. Many, including Stephen, have singled out the NBN as a great achievement, others invoking Conrovia taking a more jaundiced view.

The internet filter, his media law reforms and some of his colourful language have all come in for a serve.

I met Stephen when he became Shadow Minister for Communications. He asked me to join his office in December 2011 and I served there until he resigned as Minister in June 2013 with the return of Kevin Rudd. His colleagues pleaded with him not to resign. Mr Rudd himself asked him more than once to reconsider.

Stephen said he had to stick to his word that he would resign, and he did. But he worked awfully hard to make sure all his staff were taken care of in the reshuffle.

To do Stephen justice would take a lot more than the space of this column would normally allow, so after a simple pithy 600 words or so I’ve added a couple of thousand to just touch on more of his achievements.

There is media speculation that Stephen is going to take a job with Kerry Stokes with the comment "Senator Conroy landed in controversy in 2010 when he went skiing with Mr Stokes." This is simply false.

Yes, Mr Stokes and Senator Conroy did have the pleasure of each other's company on the slopes of Colorado that year. Those who know both men would know that Mr Stokes goes there every year.

Senator Conroy heads north every Australian summer he can, often to Europe. In 2010 he chose to be in Colorado, and as he explained at the time “I knew that Mr Stokes was in Colorado and I was going to be in Colorado and we organised to catch up. It was as exciting as that.’’

I have no idea whether Stephen is or isn’t heading for a new role in the private sector.

I do know that he would be very annoyed with the speculation, because he does not ski. He is a snowboarder!

The NBN

If you take yourself back to 2005-07 you will recall Australia’s broadband policy mess. (a “work in progress” of the history of the NBN can be found here.)

Then PBL Chairman James Packer described Australia's broadband position as "embarrassing," arguing that there was a huge consumer demand for online video that is being held back by Australia's antiquated broadband infrastructure.

“Australia needs a ubiquitous, high-speed broadband infrastructure to be internationally competitive. This is a top order priority for the nation,” Mr Packer said.

News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch has described Australian broadband as a “disgrace”, concluding: "We are being left behind and we will pay for it.”

Telstra had proposed an FTTN plan to the Howard Government that was simply unrealistic. Senator Coonan and her Chief of Staff Peta Credlin decided to run their own version of a tender – but it was a tender for policy.

Telstra was proposing to build FTTN in return for a weaker access regime, the G9 (with Paul Fletcher in a leading role) proposed an alternative that needed access to the copper.

The proposal for a National Broadband Network, based on Fibre to the Node, with Government co-investment and to achieve structural reform was the kind of policy development that we would like to see more of.

There is a whole book to write about the NBN, how the policy adapted to Telstra’s intransigence and the reality of the GFC. That history would include the facts about the relationship between the Minister and the NBN Co Board, and the fact that he did not direct them on anything.

On two issues in particular history would show that the Minister’s counsel should have been listened to. The first was on the use of “build drops” rather than “demand drops.” The second was on whether the initial construction contracts should have been four years, rather than two-plus-two.

These two issues lay at the core of the issues that confronted Senator Conroy in early 2013 as NBN Co advised that it wouldn’t meet its June 2013 targets. It landed in the middle of a process of Australia formally dividing into two great camps; those for whom the important issue was how fast you could build an NBN, and those for whom the issue was building the infrastructure we need for the future.

Throughout this period the Coalition darkly referred to Conroy as a person who had cowered the Board into providing targets he wanted to see, who had misled and deceived the public over the true costs of the NBN.

After four separate reviews in government, the Coalition found nothing to substantiate these claims.

And as time has passed the analysis that was provided in the Strategic Review was found wanting; it consistently under-stated the MTM cost and overstated the fibre cost.

But Senator Conroy’s singular achievement was the recognition that we needed an active broadband policy, not a passive one. And there is a delicious irony that regional Australia has benefitted early from the deployment of the satellite and fixed wireless solutions.

Those who argue that Labor’s pursuit of NBN Co will ease with Stephen Conroy gone are definitely underestimating Michelle Rowland and the extensive network developed by Senator Conroy that she can draw on.

Media Reform

Stephen Conroy’s achievements with the media are remembered publicly for the attempted ownership and standards reforms in 2013.

They are probably better summed up by an event at the first (and I think only) of the new Ministerial Advisory Council on Communications back in March 2014. The new Minister – Malcolm Turnbull – started disparaging his predecessor when one of the broadcasting CEOs rose and said he would have none of this criticism because Stephen Conroy was the best minister they had ever had.

Part of that was that Senator Conroy was always trying to find a consensus pathway, an almost impossible task on the contentious issue of the rules to keep sport on free-to-air-TV. In the end, a final legislative settlement wasn’t reached but a series of ongoing determinations delivered the outcome.

The Coalition had made a complete hash of progress on the conversion to digital television. Senator Conroy restructured it, and delivered a program that finally saw full conversion and the ability then to clear additional spectrum for mobile services.

The other great Conroy achievement was television equalisation; the ability for people everywhere in Australia to have the same choice of number of channels. That included the addition of these channels to the VAST system for delivery by satellite. Another Labor achievement for regional Australia.

But without doubt it was the reforms, or more particularly two of the reforms, proposed in March 2013 that are usually best remembered. This was the occasion on which the Daily Telegraph decided to equate Senator Conroy to the great dictators of our time.

The Australian in its editorial of 13 March 2013 thundered “In a better-run government, led by a prime minister who commanded authority and used cabinet to separate good ideas from bad, Stephen Conroy’s plans to regulate the media would not have seen the light of day. So denuded is Julia Gillard’s standing, and so chaotic is executive process, that the communications minister was able to ambush cabinet, catching wiser heads unaware.”

There were a number of flaws in that analysis. The first is that the proposals were first due to go to a Cabinet meeting in September 2012, but were deferred when the Prime Minister took leave following the death of her father. The second was that the person who was ambushed was Conroy; he was advised by the Prime Minister on the Sunday of her intention to schedule the item for that week’s Cabinet meeting.

That decision to take the reform to Cabinet was taken because Labor had secured the support of the House of Representatives independents for the reforms.

That deal fell apart in circumstances that may one day be fully explained. Put simply, News Ltd got what it wanted not by the public campaign, but by blackmail.

The greatest pity was that the proposals in part failed because of the Orwellian name of the Public Interest Media Advocate who was to have a role in both mergers and the upholding of journalistic standards.

Stephen will never accept this because he had always championed a public interest test and couldn’t see the problem in the name.

The Internet Filter

This characteristic of Senator Conroy’s, to not consider change once he had determined his course, was most on display over the vexed question of the Internet Filter.

There is a myth that does the rounds, especially amongst FTTP fanboys, that this was a Kevin Rudd plan to which Conroy was never particularly attached. To think that Stephen Conroy would have taken this much pain for Kevin Rudd is to completely misunderstand their relationship.

Senator Conroy was committed to a very simple idea that the rules of civil society should apply in cyberspace just as well as they did in the physical world. Unfortunately, the policy for the filter was developed with a lack of clarity around technology choices and a misunderstanding of classification law.

Two issues of the latter kind were apparent early. The first was that there was no R classification for games. 

The second was a gap in the classification system between X-rated and unclassified. Senator Conroy only wanted to block access to material online that was not available in other forms, and in arguing the point he relied on the description of material which was supposed to be refused classification.

However, the definition of X-classification stopped at a point significantly lower, so the proposal would have resulted in a wider range of material being caught in the plan.

The technology issues in part started by interpretation of the word filter, which in its most natural form implies the inspection of each piece of content. The Conroy intention was only ever for restricted access, to block the ability to navigate to a page or domain that was entered on an appropriate list.

Unfortunately, it soon also became apparent that the classification system failures made list maintenance challenging.

Despite all the anguish, the upshot of the policy was three very good outcomes. The first is that there is now an R classification for games.

The second was an excellent review of the classification system by the Australian Law Reform Commission that recommended the top classification become “Prohibited” and that it proscribe only a very limited range of content.

That review still languishes in the Attorney-General’s office awaiting implementation.

Finally, Australia did introduce a process to block access to commercial child pornography sites, a policy that has the support and endorsement of Interpol.

If all failed policies could be this successful, Australia would have brilliant government.

Language and Style

Above all else Stephen Conroy was an enthusiastic and combative personality.

His enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. I joined Stephen’s office in December 2011, one day before he addressed the National Press Club. It was in Q and A following that address that he decided to redefine appropriate language in lunchtime viewing by dropping the “f-word.” (I helped write the speech, but didn’t prep the Q and A.)

More controversial was his comment when describing the powers of the Federal Government over spectrum when he said “if you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head…you’ll be wearing them on your head.”

This was said at a Columbia University academic seminar on communications policy to which Stephen had been invited. Has any other Communications Minister been invited to attend such a conference? (I helped the Minister prepare his comments for that conference – this wasn’t in the script).

He was renowned as a factional organiser, but his primary motivation was winning government so that Labor could do good things.

Despite his reputation, he chose his Ministerial staff primarily for what they could provide to policy. Two of the members of his staff in my time were members of the ALP left. The last hire was advised by her Labor colleagues in NSW not to try for the job because Senator Conroy hired for policy skill, not factional heritage (it just so happened she actually had relevant policy skill).

He is the only member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party that I know of who still opposes the membership ballot for choosing the leader. He bases this on the observation that the people who need to be led are the MPs, and the people who need to be persuaded aren’t the party members but the median voters.

To assess the accuracy of his assessment we need to simply watch the leadership contenders over the next months. Will they be making their pitch to the public or to the party?

In this column I’ve focussed on Senator Conroy in the Communications portfolio. In Opposition much has been made of his questioning of Defence officers on border protection. He rightly insisted that our military are not beyond reproach or questioning. He made the same point over the police and their approach to NBN leaks.

But in Opposition it was Senator Conroy whose relentless pursuit cost David Johnston his job; it was Senator Conroy that secured jobs for South Australia.

Ultimately he knows that you have to be prepared to take a bit of skin off when you make a tackle. Sometimes you will get it wrong, but if you don’t contest you cannot win.

Summary

All the elements I’ve mentioned here were on display in the crazy two week sitting in March 2013.

We were dealing with media reform, we had NBN Co advising us they weren’t going to reach its target and preparing a revised forecast. Spectrum reallocation was reaching its zenith with the auction of the 700 MHz spectrum.

Against this backdrop Senator Conroy’s office was a constant stream of the ALP numbers men as pressure for a leadership spill mounted. Getting time with the boss was hard, but the office never missed a beat.

Except one day when the boss was locked away with an ordinary Victorian party member for about an hour. No one could figure out why. It was only weeks later that we realised he had been in discussion about the numbers for a forthcoming pre-selection.

But the highlight of that week was the Minister in the blue room, addressing the press on the media reforms. At the end he looked up at the clock and realised it was already past two o’clock, as Leader of the Government in the Senate is late for Question Time.

”Shit,” he said. Then he put his hands over the microphones and said “Don’t tell the ACMA I said that” and raced to the Chamber.

David Havyatt worked as a Special Adviser to Senator Conroy from Dec 2011 to June 2013. He is no longer employed in a political office and no longer works in telecommunications.

 

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