Conroy's legacy: From factional Dalek to NBN master

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.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

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.

Editorial standards