Labor needs to get its story straight

Summary:Stephen Conroy hasn't been making many friends lately, what with his attacks on Google and his false claims of filter support from iiNet. But have poor communications with industry and even the PM made our communications minister an ironic liability to his own party? Or is it the party itself simply showing its internal systematic failures for the world to see?

One had to wonder whether the cone of silence has been installed around the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy after the recent war of words between Senator Stephen Conroy and iiNet over the still-contentious internet filter.

This whole filter business started off as bad, uninformed policy and has just gotten worse as public and industry opinion coalesces around what appears to be massive opposition to the filter as postulated. A very interesting GA Research survey of 1018 Sydney and Brisbane parents, for example, recently found that adults were less and less supportive of Labor's policy as they found out more and more about it. Perhaps the only pro-filter voice we've heard recently has been that of iPrimus' Ravi Bhatia, who argues that opposition to the filter is mostly emotional kickback and that the actual filter really won't be that bad.

Stephen Conroy
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy
(Credit: Liam Tung and Ed Tran/ZDNet Australia)

Hold still, this won't hurt a bit.

Of course, it will hurt — yet for all the filter's potential victims, none seem more vulnerable now than Conroy. Our illustrious minister has been on the back foot since the policy was announced, but made a colossal blunder in presuming to count iiNet among the list of internet service providers supporting his filter. iiNet's Michael Malone minced no words, calling the minister a liar and arguing that iiNet's involvement with the filter has only been an attempt to try to make bad policy, better.

This all seems to be grey noise for Conroy, who has been clutching at straws on one TV show after another in an effort to find supporters for his tenuous filter position. At every attempt, he is shouted down and sent packing into the political equivalent of foetal position, only to regroup and emerge spouting the same ill-guided platitudes.

Is Conroy really so disingenuous and ill-informed that he believes Australians actually want this filter? As a supposed representative of the Australian people, he's drawing a very, very long bow to argue that this is the kind of online protection they're asking for. If voters vote based on which party offers the best online protection for their children, they should definitely vote for the Liberals; their funded, implemented NetAlert was actually capable of achieving the goals Conroy has hijacked to justify his decidedly less-effective filter.

That the filter policy has been a case study in absolute political disarray, became painfully clear recently as confusion recently emerged over whether the filter legislation would be introduced before the election or not. A report in The Australian quoted Conroy's office as suggesting the legislation was delayed, but Rudd told ZDNet Australia that he had no information to that effect and The Australian's report was later said to have misquoted Conroy's office.

Is Conroy really so disingenuous and ill-informed that he believes Australians actually want this filter? If voters vote based on which party offers the best online protection for their children, they should definitely vote for the Liberals; their funded, implemented NetAlert was actually capable of achieving the goals Conroy has hijacked to justify his decidedly less-effective filter.

Such delays would have absolutely incensed the back-room deal-makers to whom Conroy has undoubtedly sold his soul in exchange for their National Broadband Network (NBN) support. Conroy was quick to come out arguing that the legislation — which has not even been drafted — was still on track before the election. Six weeks later, there's still no legislation — and Conroy has come out today in statements conceding that he has missed the deadline he was initially shooting for.

"We hoped to finish the consultation and legislation finish being drafted in the first half of the year," he told reporters after his speech opening Cyber Security Awareness Week. "We don't expect that to be the case. The consultations are still ongoing ... We would hope the legislation will be tabled in parliament in the second half of this year."

In other words, the filter legislation will not, in fact, be introduced before the election. After all, parliament is gearing up to end the current session on 24 June. After that, there are just 13 sitting days through the end of September, by which time the election campaign should be in full swing and there's no hope of new legislation like the filter being introduced. Even Conroy wouldn't risk dropping a bombshell like actual filter legislation just days before the election — or would he?

All of this begs a simple question: if Rudd didn't know the legislation was going to be delayed, whose fault is that? Well, it would be Conroy's fault: as a front-bench minister, Conroy has an obligation to make sure the PM knows what the hell is going on — especially with such a political hot potato as the filter. And if Conroy didn't know the legislation was going to be delayed, what planet is he living on? Either Conroy has failed in his duty to keep Rudd abreast of the real status of the filter legislation, or Rudd was simply not paying attention. These are the same kinds of oversights that also caused the home-insulation policy disaster.

This sort of chaos begs the question: isn't there anybody, ANY body, who can run the country and actually know what's going on? It is not, I should add, clear that Tony Abbott is the man to do this.

Conroy has an obligation to make sure the PM knows what the hell is going on — especially with such a political hot potato as the filter. Either Conroy has failed in his duty to keep Rudd abreast of the issue, or Rudd was simply not paying attention. These are the same kinds of oversights that also caused the home-insulation policy disaster.

But for now, the main issue before Conroy is that this whole iiNet mess puts him into something of a predicament. He has been caught out presuming that involvement in the filter plan equates to support for it; any savvy ISP knows the only way to stop the filter from being a total catastrophe is to work against it from within. This supports the argument that he knows he's in a tenuous position yet continues single-mindedly pushing his barrow — which really compromises that whole representing-the-will-of-the-people thing.

Yet an even worse possibility would be if Conroy is not being deceptive at all, and really does believe he is onto a winner with the filter; that he really did believe iiNet was supporting him; and that he really thinks the filter is good policy rather than fatuous pork traded for leverage on the far-bigger NBN. It's possible that he really does think the foreign governments coming out against him are wrong, that Google is far more evil than his own policies, that Australian banks don't actually encrypt their customers' data, and that sticking with his policies will get him and Labor re-elected. In which case, he should resign and hand over the position to someone with a more realistic perspective on things.

Of course, that will not happen: these are politicians we're talking about, and realistic perspectives in politics are rare as hen's teeth. More importantly: as the engineer of the far more-important NBN, Conroy has virtually guaranteed himself a long tenure as long as Labor's snowballing policy nightmares and political missteps don't torpedo Rudd's ambitious vision for change. In the meantime, however, Conroy might want to review his alliances carefully before sullying their names in public; he must realise that his friends on filter policy are few and far between, and that the far easiest solution — political deal-making aside — would be to back away from the policy, apologise for the whole mess, and focus on rallying his allies around the far-more-important NBN.

Topics: Government : AU, 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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