commentary Labor backbencher Kate Lundy would make a better communications minister than incumbent Stephen Conroy.
However, it's not enough to simply say that Lundy understands the technology portfolio better and leave it at that. It's important to look back at their history since the pair both joined the Senate in 1996 to learn why one has maintained a strong reputation in Australia's technology sector while the other is having theirs torn further into shreds every day. And why, despite this, Lundy is unlikely to win back the portfolio any time soon.
Right from the start of her tenure in the Senate, Lundy has demonstrated a strong commitment to the technology sector. In the 14 years since 1996 (as her website proudly states and as is evident from her parliamentary record), Lundy has participated in every Senate inquiry relating to telecommunications and information technology that has been held.
As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has discovered since taking his own Senate chair in late 2008, the Senate inquiry process — as well as the similar Senate Estimates Committee arena — provides significant scope for senators to raise important issues and question those in power.
The last 14 years have seen Australia's telecommunications industry de-regulated and revolutionised several times over, firstly with the onset of the internet in the late 1990's, then with the onset of broadband in the 2000's, and in recent times with the growing power of the mobile broadband networks. And through it all, Lundy has sat in her Senate chair calmly asking questions — in opposition and in government.
The senator's long-standing engagement in this area gives her a depth of understanding of the current revolutionary change being wrought in Australia's telecommunications industry that no other currently serving politician can match, with the potential exception of former Communications Minister Helen Coonan. This commitment is evident as far back as Lundy's maiden speech on 7 May 1996, when the neophyte senator stated:
By the year 2000 the information sector will be the world's second largest industry. Those nations that develop the infrastructure necessary for this industry to flourish are the nations that will prosper into the next millennium. Infrastructure is not just cable and microwave dishes; it is an education and training system which can increase people's skills in developing software and creating useful content.
Already in Australia information and information-related activities employ more than 40 per cent of the work force and generate 36 per cent of gross domestic product, and this can only improve. High quality communications, widespread computer usage and literacy, and a willingness to use modern engineering technologies will be essential ingredients in our economic well-being. However, I am not yet convinced that we have sufficiently analysed and discussed the societal and community effects of this shift in our economic base. For example, although the need to take this technology to rural Australia is well recognised, have we explored the long-term impact on the economies of country towns?
The geography of Australia provides special challenges in terms of access to information infrastructure; challenges that can be met only in a policy framework with priorities of equal access, universal service and that which puts the needs of Australians — both suppliers and consumers — first. The best way of ensuring this is through public ownership.
These are pretty clear words for a junior senator. They speak to a long-term interest in the technology portfolio. How many other politicians, you may well ask, demonstrate an interest in government use of technology in their maiden speech to parliament?
Lundy's commitment to the technology portfolio was recognised just two years after she took office, when she won a junior shadow ministry role assisting the then-shadow minister for industry and technology.This ascension marked the start of Lundy's long spell as one minister opposing long-standing Communications Minister Richard Alston, who held the portfolio from 1996 to 2003. In 2001, Lundy was rewarded further, taking over the whole shadow information technology portfolio, although she never held the title of shadow communications minister — Lindsay Tanner held this role from 2001 through 2004, when Conroy became shadow communications minister.
Alston presided over several important developments in the portfolio, including the deregulation of the telco sector, which has led to dramatically improved competition and outcomes for consumers. However, he was repeatedly lampooned in the press for his demonstrable lack of understanding of technology, with UK stalwart The Register describing him as "the world's biggest luddite".
Like Conroy, Alston also took a stance against rogue content on the internet — stating on one memorable occasion that pornography was one reason behind the take up of fibre broadband in South Korea. Those with long memories will recall that Lundy took full advantage of the situation, clobbering Alston on a daily basis and delivering the press a constant series of juicy headlines about his incompetence.
And Lundy is still delivering results in the portfolio. For example, in March 2002, she slammed Alston and the Howard Government for leaving small to medium enterprises out in the cold when it came to government IT contracts.
In March 2010, eight years later, it was Lundy (in cahoots with Industry Minister Kim Carr) who revealed an IT supplier advocate would be appointed to resolve just that problem. Talk about long-term policy. For a politician, eight years is eight lifetimes. Count us amazed and impressed — it appears Lundy never forgets an issue once she gets interested in it.
You can even see Lundy's commitment to the technology sector in the people she surrounds herself with. One of her chief advisors is Pia Waugh — long-time open source advocate and former Volante staffer and power couple with Jeff Waugh, himself a prominent member of the open source community and IT industry luminary. And Lundy is married to David Forman, director of the Competitive Carrier's Coalition, a lobby group which represents ... well, just about every other telco in Australia apart from Telstra.
Despite what many saw as Lundy's long-running success as shadow IT Minister, she eventually lost the portfolio in October 2004. A comparison with Conroy's own parliamentary history may prove illuminating at this stage.
Conroy also ascended to the Senate in 1996. Like Lundy, he mentioned technology in his maiden speech on 8 May:
The Labor Party's next challenge is to confront the changing structure of Australia's work force. Technological change is forcing the pace as more people work part time and from home. A new type of poverty is beginning to emerge and its impact will need to be assessed carefully. We are seeing a growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. This has many implications for public policy.
How do we ensure that every Australian child has the education including the standard of literacy they need to be able to use the new information technologies? How do we ensure that all Australians have access to the information carriers that will revolutionise the way we learn, work and enjoy ourselves? More practically, what can we do to make sure Australians have the skills and backup they need to be leaders in developing and providing these new technologies?
Though to my mind there is a subtle difference between their respective approaches. Both emphasised the fear of unequal access. Lundy even went further, discussing the potential for the technology sector to promote positive economic change.
Unlike Lundy, Conroy appears to have sought out more powerful and broader parliamentary roles. He was immediately appointed deputy opposition whip in the Senate after he ascended to the Senate alongside Lundy in 1996 and then had a succession of shadow ministries in finance, small business and corporate governance until he won the shadow communications portfolio in late 2004.
It was only at this point (some six years after Lundy) that he joined the Senate committee on Environment, Communications, IT and the Arts. Lundy has been controversial at points and has not been shy of grabbing headlines. And she is happy to attack the Opposition when she feels it is appropriate. However, generally she does not go on the attack within her own party — even going to public lengths to emphasise her commitment to working within party lines on the mandatory internet filter policy, which she opposes but will vote for when it's associated legislation lands in parliament (she will not cross the floor).
Her approach could be broadly characterised as consultative rather than confrontational — she has rarely used her Senate position to go heavily on the attack in parliament, appearing to prefer a behind-the-scenes approach. She is believed to be part of Labor's "socialist left" faction, and described by some commentators as championing socially liberal values such as women's rights and Aboriginal reconciliation.
In comparison, Conroy (a member of the Labor right) has earned himself a reputation even within his own party for his confrontational approach. His 2006 attack on Labor colleague Simon Crean's run for a pre-selection seat in Hotham — which led to Crean's repeated calls for Conroy's resignation as deputy leader of the Opposition in the Senate — is a good example of this.
Conroy also had a differing level of success in opposition to Lundy. I was a full-time telecommunications reporter through much of Conroy's tenure in opposition — for two years from the start of 2006 until mid-2008. And I can testify that Conroy was broadly ineffectual in the portfolio at opposing then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan. There was one great exception to Conroy's poor performance. And this was the National Broadband Network.
In early 2007, Conroy persuaded then-leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd and Shadow Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner of the "nation-building" virtue of a significant new communications policy to defeat what was at that time seen as a great problem in the Australian technology sector — the issue of broadband blackspots.
The policy — drawn up quickly and with few details — was a blatant populist pitch to deliver fibre broadband to an Australian public whose interest in the idea had been piqued by a similar project proposed by then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo and thrown out by John Howard's government. And there is no doubt it was one big plank in Kevin Rudd's successful pitch to win government in 2007.
Conroy has suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the eyes of the Australian public since the November 2007 election. The primary reason is the public distaste for the mandatory internet filter policy, but he also continues to misspeak, conduct sustained attacks on technology industry stalwarts such as Google and potentially prejudice legal trials such as iiNet's defence against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft. Perhaps most importantly, he appears to lack a fundamental grasp of much of the technology he is charged with regulating.
But it is delivering the National Broadband Network policy that Rudd no doubt sees as his chief responsibility. And I don't expect him to lose his position as communications minister any time soon, because of this reason. To Rudd, Conroy is likely the "NBN guy". And "NBN guy" he will stay through thick and thin, no matter how much the public rages against him because of the internet filter policy.
This single fact does much to illustrate Kate Lundy's plight. Yes, she understands technology itself, as well as policy in the area and the industry much better than Conroy ever will. And her personal style makes it much more likely she will drive outcomes that will please more in the sector.
However, Lundy was not able to muster the political capital to get a massive, multi-billion-dollar policy like the NBN through cabinet. In relation to technology policy, Conroy has failed on almost every other front but the NBN. However, the NBN is a king-hit, winner takes all prize that will define his career. To take it away from him, Lundy will need to play a much harder, faster and tougher style of politics or continue to be marginalised within Labor.
You can see this harder style of politics being played by other politicians in the portfolio. Conroy plays it. Ludlam — who bent Conroy over a barrel and forced him to cough up the NBN Implementation Study — is playing it. Nick Minchin played it very well. And even Malcolm Turnbull has flirted with it from a distance.
But so far Lundy has not demonstrated the stomach for it. In politics, you don't earn a position of power. You seize it.