2010: The good, the bad and the Conroy

The best thing about 2010 is that it's an election year, and the worst thing about 2010 is that it's an election year. Pressed to deliver concrete results to push their case with voters, KevAgainIn10 and Stephen Conroy will do their damnedest to progress the NBN, Telstra separation, the digital TV switchover — and the hated internet filter. But can the Opposition parry?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

The best thing about 2010 is that it's an election year. Why? Aiming for a strong voter mandate to justify his hard-spending ways, Prime Minister KevAgainIn10 will be leaning on minion Stephen Conroy to convert the NBN into political capital. That means we can anticipate great progress in Labor's plans to fibre-ise the country.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about 2010 is that it's an election year. Even as the NBN rolls on, Conroy will also be working to put runs on the board in other areas of reform — witness efforts to bolster the government's digital TV switchover plans, the need for Conroy to put his money where his mouth is regarding Telstra's separation, and his desire to railroad through his internet filter so he and Big Kev can trumpet their efforts to make the internet safer for voting families.

In these respects, 2010 will be an interesting if not challenging year — and one in which Labor would seem to have all the odds in its favour. After all, love its policies or hate them, Conroy has proved to be more effective than his predecessors at reeling in Telstra's market power, happily driving the reform bandwagon with one hand on the wheel and the other stuck out the window to flip Telstra the bird.

The problem, of course, is that Telstra has already posted a road crew further up the highway, and has posted false "detour" signs that could very easily route Conroy and his beloved reform through back roads and dead-ends; whether he can get things back on track in time for the election may prove to be his biggest challenge.

One thing that is probably not going to be a big challenge for Conroy this year is the Opposition, which struggled famously in the lead-up to year's end and is now stumbling into an election year with few clear policies and little about which to attack Labor. The best that the supposedly hard-hitting Tony Abbott has done so far is to make a specious connection between the NBN and Gough Whitlam and, in true pollie style, to waffle on about Conroy's internet filtering plans rather than taking anything resembling a real position on it.

With such a lacklustre Opposition, one wonders whether the telecommunications industry will even rate in the election campaign to be run later this year. Sure, Rudd and Conroy will be spruiking their successes and promising more to come in their second term. But the average punter doesn't give a hoot about the philosophical or real benefits of reining in Telstra: depending on their individual persuasions, they are more likely to be concerned about the government's inability to increase the value of their Telstra shares, or their poor mobile coverage/ADSL service, or just the perception that it's impossible to get much of anything done quickly when it comes to telecoms.

This last point, coupled with Conroy's widely reported threat in October to clamp down on telecoms providers that fail to improve poor customer service, could turn out to be the dark horse in the telecoms industry this year. Heck, I'd like many others to experience the convoluted process that passes for customer service after being without ADSL service since late November (for those keeping score, that's 51 days now; I'll relate the ending to that story in an upcoming post).

A targeted attack on Labor could create a public perception that Conroy has been too busy in back-room meetings and pushing his own agenda to deliver anything of real value
Here, perhaps, is real ammunition for the Opposition. A targeted attack on Labor could create a public perception that Conroy has been too busy in back-room meetings and pushing his own agenda to deliver anything of real value to Australia's telecommunications consumers — and that Conroy was in fact so eager to push Labor's agenda that he was even willing to sell out Australians' assumed, albeit largely imaginary, right to free speech to win the concessions he needed.

Throw in the ongoing investigations into Labor's hush-hush and not-very-transparent NBN process, and the Opposition certainly has its speaking points for the election. If Abbott and Minchin cannot capitalise on Conroy's filter debacle in a political sense, they do not deserve to call themselves politicians.

In the meantime, however, the nature and extent of the above-mentioned concessions should become clear this year as we watch the voting patterns on key telecommunications reform legislation that needs to be introduced throughout 2010. That legislation will also inform change in the rest of the industry, where many ISPs are nervously watching both the minister's actions and waiting for the results of the game-changing AFACT vs. iiNet lawsuit to see how they should plan their future expansion.

While Labor has made much progress towards building a broadband infrastructure we finally don't have to apologise for, there are still many obstacles in the way. Whether the NBN can win or lose the election for Labor isn't certain, but either way Conroy needs to fight inertia this year to lay out a post-election roadmap that Labor can execute on without running out of money or political goodwill. With many juggling balls up in the air at the same time, this year will clearly be his greatest test to date.

What telecoms industry changes are you looking forward to in 2010? And is Labor a shoo-in at the election, or could the Opposition parry?

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