Conroy's NBN train has jumped the tracks

Summary:It's one thing to promote a project on the goodwill of one's peers and critics, but Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is venturing into dangerous territory with his escalating showdown with the rest of parliament. Even worse, the involvement of Prime Minister Julia Gillard suggests Labor is every bit as duplicitous and autocratic as the Coalition alleges.

Who would ever have thought it could come to this, and so quickly? With just a week left until parliament shuts up shop for the year and the Telstra separation legislation halfway home, the rapidly-escalating conflict between Labor and the rest of government now has words like "contempt of Senate" and worse being thrown around an increasingly agitated Senate that tried to gag Stephen Conroy and could well end up blocking legislation out of sheer spite.

It's hardly the result Conroy would have been hoping for as Malcolm Turnbull's efforts at a private members' bill to force greater disclosure were foiled and Conroy's Telstra legislation passed the lower House with no changes. This would normally have been a cause for celebration, yet Conroy faces new problems as the Greens and Coalition band together to compel the release of the NBN Co business plan. Even Julia Gillard has jumped into the fray, supporting Conroy's plan to release that document next month, using the time-honoured approach to slip it into the pre-Christmas news vacuum where it will be summarily ignored, and cannot influence the current Parliamentary debate.


As his fellow senators dig in over the NBN business plan, has Stephen Conroy's luck run out? (Credit: David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

Conroy is clearly hoping to keep the document out of the limelight until after the Telstra legislation is passed, and is counting on the growing desire to resolve it once and for all, to lodge what would be a stunning legislative win just days before the parliamentary session ends. He "understandably" doesn't want to cloud the debate and risk derailing the Telstra legislation as his opponents pick through the report for ammunition to delay the vote past next Thursday.

Yet knowing that Conroy has in his hands but refuses to share a document that could add great clarity to the NBN project, and potentially silence critics once and for all, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. It's not as though Conroy doesn't have this information, in which case he could be given some leeway. It's there, but he just won't share it. He says he's still processing it, as he did last week when asked about the document at Nextgen Networks' halfway celebrations.

Knowing that Conroy has in his hands but refuses to share a document that could add great clarity to the NBN project, and potentially silence critics once and for all, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. It's not as though Conroy doesn't have this information. It's there, but he just won't share it.

I have no first-hand knowledge of his reading speed, but Conroy was able to digest the recent OECD report and intelligently evaluate its findings within hours of its release, as well as release his considered opinion that the OECD likes the NBN. The 400-page NBN Co report, however, will apparently take months to digest.

Surely Conroy has read at least the Executive Summary by now? And surely he could release that, as his fellow lawmakers are quite reasonably requesting? Surely, even Conroy recognises that good policy can't be made in an information vacuum.

In dragging his feet, Conroy is making the government look as elusive and disingenuous as its critics have long alleged. Sure, the NBN does require a few leaps of faith, but if Conroy can't proudly show off the actual implementation plan as a model of efficiency, well, that's a problem. He's also marginalising the role of parliament, which is to provide many voices that shape government policy so that individual lone wolves can't railroad through their pet projects. His refusal to release even some of the report suggests the NBN Co business case is indeed loaded with difficult figures that Conroy hasn't yet figured out how to spin; will the network indeed flunk its financials test, as Turnbull alleges Conroy has already admitted?

I am reminded of the joke in which a down-on-his-luck man asks God to help him win the lottery. He prays and prays, but the lottery draw comes and goes and he wins nothing. So he prays some more, but the lottery again comes and goes and still no prize. He once again prays, increasingly desperate, and says "God, why are you ignoring me?" and God appears next to him and says "Meet me halfway here, at least go buy a ticket!"

Citing unknowns, intangibles, and the opportunity cost of backing down on the NBN, Conroy has pushed the rest of parliament to take a whole lot on faith throughout the course of the year, and supporters of change have been none too willing to give him some slack. But there's a fine line between necessary haste and utter disregard, and Conroy has this week crossed it. The current situation is unfortunate for the NBN and dangerous for Labor: Conroy is now in contempt of the Senate, which is a worrying place for any parliamentarian to be in. Contempt of Senate is, if Wikipedia is to be believed, punishable by a fine of $5000 and/or six months' imprisonment.

There's a fine line between necessary haste and utter disregard, and Conroy has this week crossed it ... If the image of Stephen Conroy in prison orange isn't enough to make Malcolm Turnbull's Christmases come all at once, the involvement and support of Julia Gillard paints the whole situation a new shade of outrageous.

As if the image of Stephen Conroy in prison orange isn't enough to make Malcolm Turnbull's Christmases come all at once, the involvement and support of Julia Gillard paints the whole situation a new shade of outrageous. When pressured, Gillard is proving herself every bit as arbitrary and autocratic as she has been accused of being. Her position was tenuous enough after the election, when she said the people had indicated their desire for change in Canberra and that she recognised the need for more consensus-building. Now, just months later, she is becoming complicit in contempt of parliament and open defiance of the lawmakers whose support she will need to get anything done over the next three years?

This is Gillard's chance to show that things actually have changed in Canberra, and that she's prepared to engage other voices to reach a mutually beneficial outcome. It's also her time to decide whether this NBN business plan is worth staking her Prime Ministership on. Apart from the obvious implications of this action, the damage to due parliamentary process, the potential lack of confidence in her Prime Ministership, the potential direct consequences for Conroy in defying a Senate order, and the utter disregard for the supposed promise of transparent government on which Labor was elected, there is the potential for significant damage to the long-term political climate around the NBN.

Surely, Labor has lost much of its appeal to the likes of Greens Party communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam, who is learning firsthand that his party's election-time support of Labor isn't necessarily a two-way street, and showing Labor that the Greens are more than willing to side with the Coalition when they suspect Labor of skullduggery.

Labor has been railroading this project into reality since its beginning an approach which, by the way, is not entirely inappropriate given its complexity, scale, and political contentiousness, but the current situation is politically dangerous all around. Even if the telco reform legislation passes by next week, Conroy's open disregard for parliamentary procedure is going to strain the goodwill upon which the NBN's progress has relied for so long. Conroy has kept supporters on the NBN train with repeated promises of rewards ahead, but his continuing duplicity and, now, open defiance of something that is really quite reasonable, may be the thing that convinces even allies that he's really just taking everybody for a ride.

Topics: NBN, Banking, Broadband, Government, Government : AU, IT Employment

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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