Conroy overboard, can Albanese stop Rudd-erless NBN from running aground?

Summary:Stephen Conroy's self-sacrifice gave Labor the chance to appoint a boring, if reliable, NBN steward in Anthony Albanese. But was putting Australia's largest-ever technology project to a self-professed technophobe a mistake? Or a masterstroke of electoral brilliance?

Well, that’ll teach me to take time off. Fresh from a fortnight of not reading the news, I returned to find we have a new prime minister, a new communications minister and a totally new context in which the NBN will be taken to an uncertain election.

Most observers seem to have quickly accepted the fact that Stephen Conroy — the architect of the current NBN and by far the strongest character to occupy the position of communications minister since, well, ever — has fallen on his sword and left the country’s biggest-ever infrastructure project in the hands of the competent but boring Anthony Albanese.

Public domain: Walking the plank (Howard Pyle, 1887) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pyle_pirate_plank_edited.jpg)

But perhaps boring is exactly what the NBN needed. There is much to be said about Rudd’s decision to put the NBN’s future in the hands of Albanese , a politically experienced player whose dual role as deputy prime minister is certain to shorten the reporting lines between the NBN battlefield and the ears of KevIn07NotIn10AgainIn13.

Conroy’s virtues and faults  have already been broadly debated elsewhere, so I will skip the eulogies apart from saying that he was the only person that could ever have gotten the NBN, and the industry, to where it is today.

We don’t know enough about how Albanese will manage the NBN yet to pass judgment, and I have not yet had the chance to talk with him face to face. However, conceptually, one does hesitate when the newly appointed communications minister begins his tenure by pointing out that he, like Tony Abbott, is no tech head .

Conceptually, one does hesitate when the newly appointed communications minister begins his tenure by pointing out that he, like Tony Abbott, is no tech head.

That said, it wasn’t a surprise to see Conroy go, and it was perhaps the best thing for the project to separate it from the politically distasteful and counterproductive dialogue in which Conroy was mired every day. Regardless of his skill in getting the job done, there is no avoiding the fact that the NBN had become the victim of its own bulk in recent months, with seemingly one disaster after another obscuring suggestions that it was actually starting to pick up the speed it needed.

The network is now under the control of a new captain whose job will be less to make any substantial changes to its execution as it will be to apply his experience as an infrastructure champion and try to clean up the NBN’s image with voters.

Thankfully, Albanese has been upfront about his lack of technical knowledge, and has been given three more-experienced ministers to assist him. Kate Lundy is well-respected and has unmatched experience as a champion of the digital economy, while Ed Husic was increasingly involved with digital economy issues and gained a high profile with his involvement in the IT vendor price-gouging hearings.

The network is now under the control of a new captain whose job will be less to make any substantial changes to its execution as it will be to apply his experience as an infrastructure champion and try to clean up the NBN’s image with voters.

That she now occupies Albanese’s old position may itself be seen as an open line of communications that, if played right, could be turned into political gold: “give us another three years,” she will effectively be saying, “and we won’t forget you.”

Things have definitely turned on a dime, and the nature of the political dialogue since the coup seems to have changed dramatically as well. Malcolm Turnbull, no longer able to fling time-worn potshots at his nemesis Conroy, now seems to be trying to reposition the debate around regional communications — which could be a disaster for him if Labor can successfully make the point that the regions are the place where Turnbull’s FttN plan is actually weakest.

Albanese’s role, then, is less to be the pig-headed advocate that Conroy was, and more to be something of a ring-master — trying to keep his deputies working together to sell a message of continuity to the voting populace. Whether or not he can make that happen without the technical nous that Conroy had, remains to be seen; he will also face a demanding telco community that’s already trying to set his agenda  for him.

And yet, just as Tony Abbott seems to have become a stunned mullet in the wake of Rudd’s resurgence, perhaps Conroy’s departure — and the devenomisation of the NBN debate — will allow Albanese to muffle Turnbull and polish the project into a political asset come election time. Either way, it’s sure to be an interesting ride.

What do you think? Will Albanese become an NBN power hitter? Can he maintain a consistent message with so many deputies? Or will Conroy’s departure turn the NBN into the boring infrastructure project it should have been all along?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Fiber, Government : AU, Networking, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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