Labor needs to get its story straight

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


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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  • I see absolutely no difference between the great firewall of China and what Australias about to recieve. The idea that we live in a democracy would have you believe that the people are the ones who choose what happens to the country. But given Conroys complete discregard for the reality of this preposterous filter leave me to believe we as a nation have little control over the direction of this country. It only takes a few Stephen Conroys to send Australia back to the stoneage of thinking regardless of NBN's. It doesnt matter how fast your internet is if you can't access the information you want and the idea that it is just to protect children from child porn is an absoulte joke. If you look at what is being blocked it includes things that shouldnt be decided by the government. Look at what China says about their firewall and why they do it and then look at what Conroy is saying. Its identical. And everyone knows China blocks whatever the government feels like and usually what is inconvenient for their policies regardless of if its right or wrong. The filter should be a tool for parents and nothing more. There is no valid excuse for it to be any other way.
  • Conboy continues to claim that the filter will save us from terrorists and pedophiles, etc, but that it will have no implications for the average person, the so-called working families.

    He's wrong on both counts. The claims about stopping pedophiles and terrorists are so silly that they need no rebuttal, but we do need to be clear about what the filter censorship is likely to turn into.

    Conboy has already invited his stakeholders, aka the religious lobby, to come up with further lists of "inappropriate" things they want banned, so once the election is out of the way we can expect to see scope creep, plus heavy penalties for bypassing the filter etc.
  • Conroy is sticking to the filter not because it will save children. this we know is spin. its because he has grander plans, exactly what I wouldn't claim to know, but I am happy to take some punts.

    Protect children (here for completeness)
    Protect government from criticism
    Enable an eavesdropping network (this got my vote)
    Protect the profits of big media e.g. anti torrent

    What do you think?
    You can vote here

    On thing I would like to see is someone to ask Conroy how many of the children hurt due to online activities would the filter he proposes have saved?
    The answer is of course, Not One!
    In every case that I am aware of (not many) the activity was via IM or facebook etc.. something the filter would not have been able to intercept.
    We do need to protect our children. but protectionism has never worked in the past. Education and Vigilance are the only real protections. The filter may actually make children more vulnerable due to the completely false sense of security.

  • Every argument as to why the filter is needed, has easily been disproven. Conroy doesn't even attempt to defend his point of view.

    Every argument as to why the filter is flawed has been proven. Conroy simply ignores that and fails to defend his position.

    Every conspiracy theory related to the filter is being conveniently suppoted by Conroys actions. Google = privacy breach = bad. Government = wants Google's data = but this is somehow OK.
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • My vote is for "big media". With the filter in place, it'll be easy to add sites like thepiratebay to the list and then media companies in Australia wouldn't have to worry any more. I know how the operators of TPB like to ridicule anyone who sends them a takedown notice, saying that U.S. law doesn't apply in Sweden. Well, a filter would be quite an effective way for those media companies to shut down TPB without actually having to shut it down.
    Dean Harding
  • Also, it seems like this would also be a good way to get the media companies on board for the NBN, since they'd probably be wary of anything that could disrupt their distribution medium (i.e. "don't worry about the NBN taking away from television/movies: we've also got this filter that'll make downloading movies MUCH harder")
    Dean Harding
  • Conroy has done a hideous job of justifying this internet filter. Every statement he's made regarding the filter has been proven to be either misdirection, technically false, a contradiction, hypocrisy, a lie, or a bad joke (panic buttons indeed...).

    I can't believe he's spent so much effort on this filter yet hasn't even developed a draft policy. Just what has he been doing with tax payer money?

    It's as though he's had a 'brilliant' idea (in his own opinion) and just assumed it could be pushed through.
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • I am so totally over the misrepresentation of the filter policy as it is dealt with here and elsewhere. Sure it is bad policy, but the bad policy is that we have a Refused Classification criteria that is outdated and flawed. Wake up all you libertarians - censorship is already practiced.

    But what actually motivated me to write is the underlying suggestions in the article. The first is that the filter was a bargain for the NBN. It might have been a bargain for preferences, but certainly not the NBN. The second is that somehow the inability of Conroy and Rudd to introduce the filter legislation or even be consistent on were it is at is somehow a reflection of poor administration. Wake up! Even with all the blathering on this topic by the digital commentariat it is largely a non-issue. In case you hadn't noticed Kevin's a bit busy dealing with resource rent taxes and explaining why he is not dealing with climate change. Also in case you hadn't noticed the Senate has barely even got to a vote on anything for months. Stuff all legislation being introduced is being debated.

    Do you reckon we could all just get over this.
  • Conroy finds time to spend on Google and does not find time to complete the legislation he's been working on since getting into the office. And you are suggesting that this is not a reflection of poor administration? Really? Kevin is busy with another half-baked ad-hoc policy. Surely this is not an example of good aministration?
  • Hi dhavyatt,

    I agree with you on the legislation. Certainly nothing is getting through there. But on the filter, even if you don't agree with possible scope creep which is why most people don't want it to happen, you must disagree with the expenditure. Why pay millions for something which can be circumvented so easily?

    Suzanne Tindal, News Editor
  • Suzanne

    The scope creep story is remarkably over-blown. Let's assume the legislation is introduced requiring the filter and specifying the RC list be blocked. Scope creep then requires either the OFLC to amend the RC criteria which then applies to all media - i.e. there is no new risk of scope creep - or the Parliament to extend the scope beyond RC. Well, a future Parliament can impose a filter using any criteria irrespective of whether there is a filter for the RC list or not. (I accept the point that introducing the elements into the network now facilitates the change later, but to be scary I have to believe that the reason why scope creep could occur easier then is the assumption that the scope creep itself was't instituted by a democratically elected parliament. But if that's the case you could just as easily nationalise all telco networks anyway).

    If people are really concerned about "scope creep" they need to figure out a way to constrain the power of the democratically elected Parliament. The US does that with a constitutional Bill of Rights.

    I do think the expenditure - which will be borne by ISPs and hence ultimately by consumers - should be considered against the alternatives. But the ony alternative specified so far is "parental control" - I'm sorry but I don't thnk parental control of violent erotica is what we apply to DVDs.

    As the Minister has repeatedly stated we spend millions each year on traffic rules and enforcement and peopl die, we spend millions on policing and the courts and people murder. Heck we ban the sale of certain DVDs but I'm sure sme do make it into the country in suitcases and the mail. The fact that a legal provision is not 100% effective is not an argument for not having it.

    Finally, the difficulty we have today is that absent this policy we are left with the existing crappy rules of an ACMA managed blacklist that is far wider than RC, no R18+ classification for games, a process that relies upon third party software implementing that crappy list and as we know no effective scrutiny of that list.

    I'm very pleased to see at least the move to clearly identify the URLs that would be RC rather tha the wider list. What do we want to do then? A radical alternative solution would be just to set up an automatic interception facility on that list of RC URLs - because the person who navigates to it from their browser is the person who has "imported" the RC content. I can tell you if that was the legal policy I'd be clamouring for a voluntary clean feed that protected me from accessing the relevant URLs.

  • @dhavyatt, that's a sad commentary, particularly when you can talk of automatic interception and clamouring for a filter, albeit voluntary.

    You may wish to defend the minister and his policies, but putting up red herrings and attacking straw-man policies may not make for a convincing attempt to defend the indefensible relating to government censorship.