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Can common sense save Labor?

It may seem like a backflip, but Conroy's filter isn't dead — just on holidays. Yet is this an indication that sanity is finally prevailing in Chez Conroy, or is it just a sign that Julia Gillard already has enough headaches to deal with in the election run-up?
Written by David Braue, Contributor on

If there was ever any doubt that the internet filter has become a political linchpin, that doubt was dissipated as Senator Stephen Conroy finally gave in to reality and accepted that the filter is both bad for a government seeking re-election, and distracting from the many good things coming out of the NBN effort.

Of course, we have to remember that Conroy's hand was in some ways forced: with a rapidly-shrinking window of parliamentary opportunity to float legislation, an election impending, a well-argued call for sanity from the Opposition, and Conroy likely to be held to answer after anti-filter engineer Mark Newton referred the filter to the attorney-general, it would have been beyond the realm of ridiculousness for Conroy to continue pushing blindly ahead as he has done for so long.

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Now that the NBN is producing dividends and Labor is stripping dead wood in the election run-up, Tony Abbott may want to rethink his obstructionist platform. (Credit: Liberal Party flier)

Conroy says the change is to give governments time to review RC guidelines, but let's not kid ourselves: one imagines Julia Gillard ringing him after her appearance on Darwin radio this week, asking him for one good reason why the filter couldn't just be shelved until after the election — and he failing to produce a good answer.

It would have been great to be a fly on the wall for that one, but Gillard understands the challenge she faces in the coming election and she needs her entire cabinet to be 100 per cent on-message for the next few months; a rogue communications minister distracting from higher-priority items with stubborn insistence on pushing malformed legislation through parliament isn't going to do any good for anybody.

Yet the delay is hardly a victory for the filter's opponents: in true political-villain style, Conroy seems to have come out on top by extracting a commitment from three of the nation's three largest internet service providers (but not iiNet, from whom Conroy can expect no quarter after his colossal gaffe last month) to conduct what is effectively a large-scale trial of internet censorship. The ISPs say it will be months before the mechanisms are in place.

Whether this is true or just a vague stalling tactic I cannot say, but the filter is definitely not dead; it's just on holidays for a while. Yet Australia, thankfully, has been spared the imposition of a poorly-contrived but politically-expedient compromise that ignores the growing desire among the internet-using public — and Conroy's own party — for a more moderate and well thought-out solution. Now, just put that vague notion the government has of logging all our online activities to rest, and we'll be talking.

Conroy says the change is to give governments time to review RC guidelines, but let's not kid ourselves: one imagines Julia Gillard ringing him after her appearance on Darwin radio this week, asking him for one good reason why the filter couldn't just be shelved until after the election — and he failing to produce a good answer.

Shelving the filter plans for a while will allow Gillard to point — rightfully — to the tremendous logistical success that is the National Broadband Network (NBN). While there are a number of policy points that Labor might point to proudly in supporting its claim for good first-term comms performance, the happy snaps of the first fibre-optic customers more than speak for themselves.

Little surprise that Conroy and NBN Co chief Mike Quigley were so ready to display their proudest peacock colours in announcing a further 19 areas that will be wired — and go live early next year — under the rapidly-expanding project. This sort of thing is exactly what Labor needs to be doing more of: as people hear more and more about their neighbours getting blistering-fast internet connections, they're going to be more and more interested in getting on-board.

I said months ago that Conroy needed to get runs on the board with the NBN to have concrete results to point to at the election, and — by George — he has done it. As people realise the NBN is actually happening and isn't just more political fluff but a government that has had its share of political fluff, those people are going to be more and more willing to ignore Tony Abbott's anachronistic policy pronouncements and give Labor a bit of slack to bring its big-spending but crucial project to fruition.

As people realise the NBN is actually happening and isn't just more political fluff but a government that has had its share of political fluff, those people are going to be more and more willing to ignore Tony Abbott's anachronistic policy pronouncements and give Labor a bit of slack to bring its big-spending but crucial project to fruition.

Simply slamming the project as a white elephant — as Tony Abbott did in a circular that came to my house a few weeks ago — just isn't going to work for the Coalition any more. With current estimates slashing the extent of the government's likely commitment significantly over initial estimates, and with the population realising that one of Kevin Rudd's expensive policies is actually going to deliver something that they don't have now, the Opposition is going to look pretty foolish continuing to argue for rubbishing the NBN.

If the Opposition can't bring itself to support the project without tasting bile, it will need to stop this "we'll release our better policies before the election" crap and front up with a better plan — and quick smart. Because for every day that it's hiding behind vacant promises, Julia Gillard and a suddenly more on-message Stephen Conroy will be basking in the glow of a growing number of satisfied NBN users, showing they can deliver something people want, while also showing themselves finally willing to step back in accordance with the concerns of those worried about something they don't.

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