How Gillard can save the comms ministry

How Gillard can save the comms ministry

Summary: Before Julia Gillard wipes her bloody knife on her toga, she should consider a major change to the Communications ministry. But that's not to say Stephen Conroy should go; rather, she needs to adopt a different strategy that could save the NBN — and save face in backing away from Conroy's most disastrous policies.


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?

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


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • On the contrary.

    VIZ " 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.'

    The NBN is a $43 billion risk averse adventure which is well above conroy's head. Kate Lundy, if we must, may be a better choice.

    Bringing Telstra into the tent was a step in the right direction but even they would not be courageous enough to invest in the venture in view of the global preference for wireless applications.
    Vasso Massonic
  • Now that Julia "The Boss" Gillard (a quiant Stalinist reference) has been installed I trust that she will live up to her center-left credentials and champion free-speach against censorship, IP reform against US IP Imperialism (both in tech and bio-tech) and a widening of social norms against a narrowing tollerance of ethnic and social differences. I would prefer to be able to look back and remember the Julia era for its social and technological innovation, fairness and the end of federal political paternalism in Australia.
  • "[Conboy] is too important to Labor's policy vision to get rid of completely."

    If anyone thinks that's the best policy vision for the Labor Party, they're smokin' something unusual.

    Somebody who thinks he is on a mission from god to impose secret censorship and who talks about spams and scams coming through his portal (??) should be kept as far away from any IT or comms decisionmaking as possible.
  • For those saying to remove conroy completely are silly, and don't know how politics work.

    Senator Conroy could be one of those power brokers, instead of him being removed completely, move him to a more direct task, such as focusing on the NBN itself, The Legislation and so on, leave the rest (of the ICT Industry) to someone like Senator Lundy.
  • Vasso, let it go... Telstra and the NBN are now on the same side (unless the sky falls).

    As such, it doesn't matter, and probably never has mattered, that Kate Lundy is married to CCC's David Forman (I took artistic license and read between the lines of your "if we must", comment).

    Plus, with Telstra's inclusion, it's should now be considerably less than $43b and there's also plenty of literature to read, in relation to the advantages of fibre over wireless (although wireless has it's merits too).

    Strange that you should however, as you have elsewhere previously, prior to the NBN/Telstra agreement, champion wireless! Particularly as you were one of the most ardent critics (not that I was necessarily convinced either) of OPEL's WiMAX.

    But of course your position then, probably had more to do with the companies (one in particular - the OP one) which were involved and even more so, that one company (starts with T and ends with elstra) "not" involved.
  • "Plus, with Telstra's inclusion, it's should now be considerably less than $43b"

    Ok, so the fact the government now has to spend an EXTRA $9b buying out the copper network isn't adding any cost?? Fibre still costs what it does to lay, connect and support with or without Telstra. Sure Telstra probably have abilities to shave some of the costs, but they also add a profit margin as they're not a public company...

    Regardless, any "potential" saving is not going to be bigger than that $9b. To think otherwise is to be a blind optimist...
  • Hi AWY

    As I said above it "should" be a saving. But you need to look at the complete picture, not just the dollar figure part!

    Buying out the network and the rest you forgot about, isn't really adding cost, it’s simply paying for “the one I made earlier” instead of starting from scratch and saving a great deal of time and energy.

    Don’t forget too, the money is to be paid to Telstra progressively, not in one lump sum, so this also lessens the blow.

    So following the deal (if/when ratified) NBN Co will have access to Telstra's ducts, to run fibre, where the copper network now resides. So NBN Co won't have to dig up each and every street in Australia to have the underground cabling, they desperately prefer and can therefore have. Plus, NBN Co will not have to start from scratch in relation to backhaul and exchanges.

    It was said by NBN Co that a deal with Telstra would “save $5b in construction costs alone”! So sa far, you are correct NBN is in the red with this deal. But...

    Imagine the carnage - hitting gas, water, under-ground power lines that weren't on the dial before you dig plans, disruption to each neighbourhood etc...These incidents are inevitable and have costs too (sometimes unfortuantely in human terms) which are difficult and in the human cases, impossible to put a figure on!

    This deal should also expedite the estimated build time greatly, and therefore, bring the consumers end costs down and the benefits of the NBN (widely highlighted) to the fore quicker. This equals greater productivity and quicker profitability etc...

    But the biggest factor is that Telstra will migrate their customers (9 million telephony and 4 million broadband) onto the NBN, giving NBN Co, immediate patronage, as soon as the NBN is available in each area. Instead of actually competing with Telstra, whose customers, some who have always been with Telstra and their predecessors (for 50 years) otherwise, would have no willingness to change!

    The actual and potential savings of this deal far out -weigh the outlay and again "should" make the build cost, less than $43b in total, in my opinion.

    Now I wouldn't be so presumptuous and conceited to suggest that I am 100% correct and that anyone who disagrees with me is a "blind pessimist". But I do believe anyone who only looks at the basics of the deal, without at least considering the rest, is gullibly mistaken!
  • David - the MOST SIGNIFICANT criticism of Rudd was his autocratic style, not letting anyone in his government call any shots. On that basis, exactly how can you say that all this bad policy is Conroy's fault?

    Don't get me wrong, I hate the filter, the data retention plan, and all the rest of it, but this is the guy who did was 3 previous Communications Ministers couldn't - outmaneuver Sol Trujillo. Unfortunately for him, he seems to have been forced to take on the role of Rudd's hatchet man when it came to Google, the filter, the data retention plan and all the other police state policies.
  • AWY,
    The much quoted $43 billion is purely a guesstimate and no one can be sure, at this stage, what the final cost will be on its completion in 8? years time.

    Using Telstra's facilities will no doubt reduce some costs but NBN will be up for paying Telstra rent during its life. There will be other extra costs associated with the project, over and above the construction costs. Also, Murphy's Law factor may play havoc with this highly complicated and lengthy project.

    There is a very interesting article on page 28 of today's edition of The Australian Financial Review - Titled "THIS GREAT PIPEDREAM" The rule of thumb quoted in the article VIZ: "The scale and cost of the NBN investment is enormous. Consider the cost of Telstra's capital investment of $23.9 billion relative to the population of 22.2 million. That is, the cost of Telstra delivering its telecommunications service, which includes its mobile infrastructure, is a bit over $1000 per person. The NBN, at $43 billion, amounts to almost $2000 per person"..... This makes one think what Australian taxpayers are letting themselves into.
    Vasso Massonic
  • Basically your excuse for why this is a saving is because the original estimate of $43b doesn't take into account potential accidents which are avoided by using Telstra's duct system? It's still a cost increase. Also you're ignoring the fact that by not building it's own system of ducts the NBN will be forced to rent the use of Telstra's ducts forever more, again a cost increase.

    I personally prefer that the NBN uses Telstra's ducts, the previous idea of stringing up the cables overhead has such ramifications as Tasmania would've had a network that didn't work for 2 months EVERY year due to weather conditions (granted only those areas that would've been via overhead line, but i'd have hated to be queensland with their cyclones...), still a vital flaw for such a basic necessity. So i welcome the deal but rather am severely disturbed by the lack of ability of the government to be open and transparent (at the very least in regards to the cost) as well as ignoring other important aspects.

    One such is that the CSIRO has patented technology for optic fibre routing equipment that would increase the net speed of the network from the 100mbps (or 1-10gbps for backhaul) up to a minimum of 64gbps link. I say minimum because they patented the technology several years ago and at that stage were working on stabilising a 1tbps link and looking at future enhancements to speed and reliability. This uses the same materials as those that will be used in the NBN routing equipment so there would be very little price difference, and yet a massive performance difference. How inept does a government have to be to ignore using it's OWN technology to create a better network?

    As one comedian put it, "The government is paying $16 million dollars to educate us all that faster broadband is better. Who didn't know that already!"

    Faster broadband is better, but at WHAT cost and HOW?
  • In my humble opinion, starting the NBN ball rolling is one of the best things the Rudd government did in its time. The rest of its internet policies like the filter, the requirement for ISPs to retain a record of visited websites, etc. is a total disaster. As Conroy is too powerful to get rid of, give him the NBN to play with and let Kate Lundy look after the rest of the portfolio. As a new minister, she can then amend and withdraw Conroy's stupid policies and start afresh.
  • AWY, you have your opinion and I have mine and we disagree and apparently, always will. Inevitably, one of us will be found to be correct and the other not. I suppose we can keep corresponding for the next 8 years until we find out... or just agree to disagree...

    Look, the avoidance of accidents issue, was just one of many which I brought up as a side issue (which you sadly can't fathom as being advantageous, becuse there's no $ figure on it) but oddly decide to hone in on it, so whatever! Anyway...

    "Faster broadband is better, but at WHAT cost and HOW?"

    Well firstly there seems to be two 2 "main" trains of thought that I have noticed. 1) The NBN is a waste of money at any cost and shouldn't be built. Or 2) it's vital national interest infrastructure, like roads, hospitals etc and should be built come what may. As such, if we get sick, I'm sure we wouldn't want hospitals unavailable, just to save a few dollars...

    So the cost of the NBN (which was what I have been talking about) is and has always been "up to $43b", so moot point really. Also again, I believe it will be less primarily because of this deal.

    How... will now be able to be determined, since there is a clearer picture having Telstra's assets. Whereas before, NBN Co couldn't really formulate a definite because of the extreme variables of a with/without Telstra NBN. So they should now, be able to forge ahead with a definite business plan... I hope so.

    Seems there will always be those who believe the glass is half empty instead of seeing it as half full. But that's cool, everyone is allowed an opinion and to ask the hard questions, regardless of whether they be, blind optimists on the full side, or gullibly mistaken on the empty side.

  • "Simply put, Conroy has bitten off more than he can chew, and ended up with egg all over his face". What if his design in the first place was to access/control everyone's data, even if it meant building a whole new network?

    All we have now is a 43Bn network which we won't need, to transfer data we don't need (video and media) to people that don't want it (i.e. just lay fibre between the capitals, overseas- and give them wireless when they do).

    Now the public pays for more of Helstra's past mistakes (and even some future ones!). 9bn for access to their clogged, sodden holes? Lay the fibre in their and we end up paying for Telstra's maintenance costs; the moment we lift a manhole every network problem they have will be our fault. I'd steer clear of their infrastructure (even the holes) entirely if it was my fibre to lay. Imagine, they could even go laying power lines under the ground at the same time. Remember that this is the network that Ziggy and Solomon ***didn't build***. Now we're building it (a good thng) and have to pay them?

    Pfft! I'd build it (without any foolish filter) and let Helstra shrivel. Pick up their customers from the Mexican Gulf water as they swim for their lives!

    Leave Conroy on the job? Madness! If he was on the ball, he wouldn't have cost Rudd the job (yes the NBN was a big factor, make no mistake, only a spinner could say that was not a poll issue).

    Another simple example of his idiocy directly related to the NBN: If Conjob knew what he was doing, the cost structures would be clearly agreed with the stakeholders (the public). We'd even be happy about it. We'd still have Kevin as PM, Julia as a deputy, a smarter mining tax structure levied on International investors who are raping our country and a plan for the G20, the ETS and so on- all that would have come rather than be blown away in election pledges.

    Conjob could have said things people understand like:
    - Once the NBN is operational, it will give you Internet access at today's costs or lower (that might be $1 per 2GB). Those who could control their usage could thus pay only $1 per month.

    - Should you choose to pipe 43bn channels of Oprah Winfrey shows, porn or choose to put all your company's infrastructure online so you can sack all your local staff in line with your International competition, you will pay for the data necessary, i.e. costs ramp up for the amount you use.

    I don't hear anyone saying exactly what we'll pay for Internet access via the NBN. Yet Mr. Conjob is spending 43bn+ of our money... Now we've agred to spend 9bn more, all we get is a hope of cheaper rollout (whilst losing any choice to use cheaper, low bandwitdh access (xDSL) via Telstra copper);

    If the cost of providing all this extra capacity burdens the average person, the need to find another way to have it paid for by the abusers, i.e. News Ltd who would be trying to broadcast around 50% of their content as advertising, is plainly obvious.

    The public would be a whole lot happier if all the money NBN fees was to goto a Not for Profit organisation that puts all its profits into innovation and technological development, i.e. it could all go to the CSIRO.

    Of course, instead of doing this, the government could have just put in some inter-captical infrastructure and done the rest as a user-pays for wireless access, the cost will only reduce over time anyhow. he tumbling block on all this, again, is Helstra as this would be seen as the allowing too much competition.

    All this money and effort is being spent to effect regulations that force the population of a well off country to use lots of expensive infrastructure that other countries are already getting on with. It will be like this for generations to come. And the only good outcome is that it will save Helstra sharegholders from their deserved loesses, and Helstra employees jobs they don't want. I have a terrible feelig that, ifg it carries on going on like this, that it will have the opposite effect that the proponents of the NBN are pinning their hopes on- ie expensive data, crippled censorship, limited freedom of speech and a less competitive country - and I bet they give up on burying the cable and end up hanging more fibre off poles in the street!
  • Get somebody who is qualified to run the countries technology sector, not some halfwit arrogant hackjob who listens to nobody but himself. I voted labour for the first and likely last time. It all depends on what happens next.