Conroy's legacy: From factional Dalek to NBN master

Conroy's legacy: From factional Dalek to NBN master

Summary: Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy ruffled more than a few feathers in his time, but his legacy in the telecommunications industry will last for decades.

TOPICS: NBN, Government

Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy might have begun his career in parliament by being labelled a "factional Dalek" by his former mentor and boss Robert Ray, but his legacy as the minister for communications is immense. His ministerial actions have seen the senator named firstly as "enemy of the internet", but, ultimately, even his detractors would have to begrudgingly concede that Conroy was the master of the National Broadband Network (NBN) all the way up until his resignation yesterday evening.

(Image: DBCDE)

Conroy was appointed to the Senate in 1996, when Gareth Evans resigned to contest a seat in the lower house. After a stint as shadow trade minister, he became shadow communications minister in 2004, and was up against Helen Coonan at a time when the Coalition government had dragged the chain on broadband policy for a number of years. In 2007, Conroy's policy was for a fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network, while the Coalition was pushing for a WiMAX network, with ADSL upgrades and the rollout of backhaul fibre.

When Labor won office in November 2007, Conroy quickly drew scorn from the tech community when he announced plans for a scheme that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to filter websites that were deemed to fall outside of the Australian classification system, including pornography, to "protect children from inappropriate material".

The announcement drew outrage from the tech community, free speech advocates, and civil libertarians, and was compared to the wide-ranging internet filtering scheme in China. He was labelled the Internet Villain of the Year at the Internet Industry Awards in 2009, and an Enemy of the Internet by Reporters without Borders in 2010 for his efforts.

In 2010, Conroy deflected criticism of the proposal by announcing a review of the Refused Classification (RC) definition. He gave a number of illuminating examples of the kind of content that he would have liked to see blocked.

"If people want to argue that golden showers shouldn't be contained in RC, or that bestiality or pro-rape websites [shouldn't be included] ... I invite you to put in a submission to the independent process so that you can have your say."

Conroy teased out the filter issue until late last year, when he ultimately announced that ISPs would only be forced to block the so-called "worst of the worst" child abuse websites according to Interpol. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has used Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to force ISPs to comply. This year, it was revealed that this section was also used by other government agencies to block websites that were believed to be in breach of Australian law.

Aside from the filter, cybersafety was a big focus for Conroy, from the cybersafety help button to addressing spams and scams.

In 2009, Labor abandoned its plans for a fibre-to-the-node network, and instead decided to launch a new fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network to be rolled out by the government-owned NBN Co to 93 percent of the population, with the remaining 7 percent to be serviced by fixed wireless and satellite services.

Conroy spearheaded the creation of the company and the appointments of its board, and guided the appointment of CEO Mike Quigley.

Part and parcel of the NBN package was an end to the stand-off between Telstra and the government over broadband policy. Conroy managed to bring new Telstra CEO David Thodey to the negotiation table, and over two years negotiated an AU$11 billion deal that would see the incumbent telecommunications giant separate its wholesale and retail arms, and migrate customers on its copper access network onto the National Broadband Network.

Thodey today paid tribute to Conroy, stating that Conroy has an incredible ability to get things done, even if the two did not always see eye to eye.

"He was a tough negotiator, and while we did not always agree with the way he wanted to achieve this vision, we ended up working well together and I respect his abilities," he said.

"His ministry will be remembered for the NBN, his enthusiasm, and his absolute commitment to the role."

He oversaw the passage of all the legislation surrounding the NBN through the parliament, and was on hand as NBN Co began switching on services across the country, from Tasmania to Townsville. While the construction of the network has had its share of issues, from delays in construction to massive staff turnover within NBN Co, Conroy has remained committed to the project, and loyal to Quigley in the CEO role.

While his loyalty is fierce, Conroy was not one to shy from fights with the industry, media, and his fellow politicians. Often, he seemed to relish them. In the middle of the iiNet copyright fight against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT), he joked that iiNet's claim that it didn't know its customers were downloading copyrighted materials "belongs in a Yes, Minister episode".

He also accused Google of being "a bit creepy" in inadvertently collecting information transmitted over Wi-Fi connections through its Google Street View cars in 2010.

Last year, he also targeted Twitter, which he labelled as "arrogant" and said believed itself to be "above our laws" in not complying with law enforcement requests from Australia.

He put quite a few in the telecommunications industry offside when in 2012, prior to the digital dividend auction, he told a US telecommunications conference that his his power over the telecommunications industry was "unfettered".

"We are in the fortunate position that the regulation of telecommunications powers in Australia is exclusively federal," he said at the time.

"That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room, 'if you want to bid in our spectrum auction, you'd better wear red underpants on your head', I've got some news for you. You'll be wearing them on your head."

His verbal ammo was most often reserved for Liberal Party members, particularly during Senate Estimates hearings, where those in his department and in the agencies he oversaw were often facing pressure to respond to questions from the Coalition.

In a February hearing, he said Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan had "obviously been drinking" when Heffernan said Conroy was "full of s***".

In his last head-to-head debate with Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Google Hangout hosted by ZDNet, Conroy referred to his shadow counterpart as a "vampire", suggesting that Turnbull's plan to acquire Telstra's copper line was "the dumbest piece of public policy I have seen in my 17 years in parliament".

His relationship with the media was fractured at times. Aside from media reforms that the government failed to pass, Conroy also publicly attacked numerous publications that he believed were misrepresenting the NBN rollout. He did, however, build a strong fan base for his work on the NBN online through websites such as Whirlpool, and would often give users of Whirlpool shoutouts at the end of NBN Co's appearances at Senate Estimates hearings.

Conroy yesterday resigned from his ministerial role and his position as leader of the government in the Senate after Kevin Rudd was again elected leader of the Labor party.

The senator's legacy will be the massive telecommunications reforms and the separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail arms that, if enforced correctly, will improve competition in the industry and correct the mistakes made by the previous governments in the creation and subsequent privatisation of Telstra. Thanks to Conroy, the NBN will live on under either a Labor or Coalition government, and the digital economy in Australia is something that all sides of politics will continue to focus on.

At the time of writing, Conroy's replacement has yet to be named. Whoever lands the job will face an experienced and well-prepared Turnbull to debate on broadband policy in the lead-up to the election.

Topics: NBN, Government


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • I agree by and large

    with this assessment. He will be remembered favourably for the NBN, however that memory maybe be tarnished by the mess NBN Co have made of the roll out.
    Knowledge Expert
    • Bigger issue for me

      Was his attack on press freedom and the near silence of most journalists, opinion writers, universities and others. This despite he's declared position to filter content and use of powers to shutdown sites (including affecting innocent parties).

      A frightening development for those that value freedom & individual liberty, rights increasingly challenged in the West.

      Labor & NBNCo's debt will be with taxpayers for generations, very little infrastructure to so for it.

      Also Coonan's WiMAX network should be "regional WiMAX", it want propose for functioning competitive markets. Compensation for Conroy's cancelling of these contracts is still being sought.
      Richard Flude
      • Sigh


        On top of Fttx that takes the cake.
      • I don't agree with the filter

        but in fairness, the Internet filter was part of the Labor 2010 election policy and so they do have a mandate for it - though I doubt anyone suspected it was to be as draconian as Conroy tried to implement.

        On the other hand, Labor MPs keep leaking information to the media and then want to shut-down or curtail the reporting ability of the media because they reported what those MPs leaked. The "inquiry" into media and journalism in Australia was frightening and verges on communistic thought control!
        • Wrong

          Labor didn't get a mandate in 2010.
          • Okay, poor choice of word

            You are right in that Labor did not win the election and so, therefoe, they do not have a mandate. My poor choice of word. Sorry about htat.

            What I meant was, Labor were installed into power and thus have some right to implement the policies that they articulatred in their election campaign. The Internet filter was one of those policies.
          • Anyone who thinks...

            Labor did not get a mandate needs a basic lesson in Parliamentary processes. Do you at least apply this thinking consistently and refuse to refer to any "Liberal government mandates" because coalitions are somehow invalid?
    • "the mess NBN Co have made of the roll out."

      You sound confused. Coalition clowns cant do what you are describing unless they get in at the next election...
      Hubert Cumberdale
      • not confused

        the NBN rollout has not gone well by NBN Co's own goals.
        Knowledge Expert
        • yeah, I think you are still seriously confused. The definition of a mess is what the coalition clowns want to turn the proper NBN into. Obsolete FttN $30+billion taxpayer debacle ten years past it's used by date.
          Hubert Cumberdale
          • *Confused* indeed HC...

            These facts made him even more *confused* (and all narky) yesterday ...

            "Funny how you tell HC and I, we aren't experienced (without any foundation apart from the fact we challenge your immovable, blind conservative views) but yet we could see the benefits of FttN years ago... so it's taken you years to catch up to us.... Of course we have now moved on, so you still lag behind, because you hang of your masters coat tails :( But give it another 5 years and you might catch up again."

            But you need to keep that word *confused* in mind HC, because our newest play thing says things like I stand on my record of never personally attacking... but has primarily done little else since :/ When I pointed out his foolish contradiction (ah contradiction - the fact-less anti-NBN pawns best friend) he said, err you are exempt from my personal abuse guidelines... *confused.*

            Then he tried to cover by wanting factual two way correspondences, so I simply asked him his thoughts on a number of FttN issues?

            As he was completely *confused* and of course, had no factual answers to fulfil his side of the deal he asked for, here's his last *confused* response/excuse ... "troll, you do not deserve a response on any subject."

            *Confused*... much.
          • ok perhaps i am

            mistaken, the NBN Co roll out is going fabuously well, all targets met and on budget. Thanks for clarifying that for me.
            Knowledge Expert
          • Now you are going silly in the other direction...

            No one's denying there are concerns... behind targets, asbestos in Telstra pits and yes, it's a huge and expensive task...

            But being a huge task, did you really expect everything to fit like a glove, there to be no issues and for every estimation to be met or exceeded?

            Come on now,you question us about not being realistic, is expecting Australia's biggest ever infrastructure construction to go without fault, realistic?

            BTW I believe the NBN is currently under budget.
          • So?

            Yes, there have been delays and setbacks. It would be good if the rollout was faster. Does that mean we should stop it and waste $30B, delay the rollout by installing a stop gap solution and delay the rollout another 6 years? Do you go out and spend $30K on a 15 year old bomb to drive if new car is delayed, or do you stick with your current car and wait?
        • OMFG

          a major project that has fallen behind schedule. Call the presses. The world is ending in chaos. I would recommend avoiding watching any documentary shows about major building products, etc. The sheer apoplexy you would experience could be fatal.
  • The mess?

    Behind on roll out projections and asbestos in Telstra's pits... ooh.
    • BOOM another home run

      Thanks for reinforcing your stupidity with each post.

      Go on cut and past again.

      • Thank you

        ... for once again, clearly demonstrating the complete lack of all intelligence and/or common sense of the anti-NBN greed/ideologist.

        It is obvious why such a construction is way beyond your comprehension and why you can never bring anything constructive to the table.
  • Stephen conroy

    Stephen Conroy wants to destroy the free speech as the manner of the most dictatorial regime likely China, Vietnam, North Korea...unfortunately he applies into a wrong place and wrong people, he is the enemy of internet.
    As Peter Garrett wasted money into the insulation scheme, Mr. Conroy with NBN couldn't meet the commercial criteria, the internet using in Australia couldn't be good as the US and Europe, actually Telstra charges too much services, the consumer have no happiness with Telstra.
    Mr. Conroy's legacy will be remaining longer into the Australia economy. NBN failed.
    Hoa Minh Truong.
    ( author of 3 books: the dark journey, good evening Vietnam & from laborer to author)
    hoa minh truong
  • Well...

    You are entitled to your opinion and your opinions are welcomed, hoa.

    However I disagree with you and your views entirely... as I believe firstly and most importantly (here at a comms forum) that the NBN is not a failure and secondly, that neither of the major political parties is better than the other... they are politicians simply with different agendas.

    Having seen your tweets, attacking anything and everything that this government does and any and every member of it (rightfully or wrongly) whilst praising the likes of Thatcher, isn't conducive to meaningful, impartial comms correspondence here, IMO.

    I'm sure this government and Maggie, both did good and bad things for their people, which all needs to be recognised. But blind faith in one and contempt for the other is shortsighted IMO.

    Regardless, good luck with the books.