Both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd mentioned the National Broadband Network in their introductory speeches on Thursday morning, but there was no mention of Labor's more embarrassing policies — the internet filter, the vendetta against Google, plans to snoop on email and web usage, Australia's participation in the vindictive ACTA legislation, or even the Big Red Button.
Whether this was by omission or design, it suggested that the winds of change may well be in the air — and that Gillard has an unprecedented opportunity to fix every festering embarrassment that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has allowed to taint his portfolio and his reputation.
I'm not talking about getting rid of him; many observers have agitated for his removal in favour of long-time portfolio bridesmaid Kate Lundy, but he is too important to Labor's policy vision to get rid of completely. For all his foibles and disastrous policies, his execution of the NBN has been effective and capable; the project is a work in progress that cannot be easily interrupted without causing major continuity problems.
That's why Gillard, before she wipes her bloody knife on her toga, should modify Conroy's portfolio so he stays on as minister for the NBN — and give the rest of the communications portfolio to Lundy.
Gillard, before she wipes her bloody knife on her toga, should modify Conroy's portfolio so he stays on as minister for the NBN — and give the rest of the communications portfolio to Lundy.
As a voice of reason in the industry, Lundy is someone who has the experience, perspective and respect of the industry that Conroy simply seems to lack. She is a seasoned professional and level-headed negotiator who would be able to progress Labor's agenda with a far less dogmatic pigheadedness than Conroy; her push for an opt-in filter is a good example of her ability to rationalise Labor's policies with what I will broadly call here, the will of the people.
That will is only likely to get stronger: opponents of Conroy's multiple follies, for example, have been so impressively organised that they were able to plop down 19,000 anti-filter signatures in the Senate this week. That's the kind of voice that no government can afford to ignore, but it's a distraction from what should be Conroy's major focus: delivering the NBN as effectively and efficiently as possible. And protecting it from the predatory and aimless attacks of our antagonistic Opposition.
In seizing power and declaring that Labor had "lost its way" with its recent policy decisions, Gillard has implicitly indicated that all of the party's policies are on the table: if opponents of these policies can make a convincing case that they're going to be a liability, there is every chance that the new Prime Minister could simply declare them off the agenda. Lundy's appointment would let Gillard put a new face on Labor's communications policies, easing them from their current roots in blind fanaticism into a more practical, moderate stasis to be calmly addressed after the election.
Simply put, Conroy has bitten off more than he can chew, and ended up with egg all over his face. This isn't going to help anybody in the run-up to the election — particularly as the NBN is likely to become a key election issue over the next few months. Conroy's biggest policy successes all relate to the NBN, and this week's Telstra deal and tabled legislation show that he has now done the hard work — and brought Labor communications policy to a convenient point to move to the next level.
Conroy's biggest policy successes all relate to the NBN, and this week's Telstra deal and tabled legislation show that he has now done the hard work — and brought Labor communications policy to a convenient point to move to the next level.
Indeed, the NBN and associated legislation — including Telstra-separation amendments that were tabled in the Senate this week — remain the one thing that may well resonate with voters come election time. The deep schism between Labor's forward-looking views and the Opposition's boorish, aimless opposition is easy for anybody to spot, and it's one reason the NBN could well become a pivotal policy point as Gillard moves towards her reckoning with the Australian public.
Focusing Conroy on the NBN and bringing in Lundy's fresh-faced competency would not only address these issues, but would introduce a system of checks and balances that would counteract the widespread opinion that Kevin Rudd's top-down management style was too heavy on mandate and too light on consultation.
Given her need to make sure she is elected properly, in a general election, why would Gillard risk the potential backfire of communications policies that even her own party has recently labelled as "toxic"? Just as she has brokered a fresh start to negotiations with mining companies, she can take the impending ministerial reshuffling as a way to broker a fresh start for the NBN and the entire communications industry.
What do you think? Would an NBN ministry play to Conroy's strengths? Is Lundy the right person for the job? Or has Labor just lost its way?