commentary Although Commuications Minister Stephen Conroy's vehement Senate opponent Nick Minchin has announced his retirement, Conroy's decision yesterday to release the implementation study showed that he still has opposition in the form of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.
Scott Ludlam (Credit: Greens Party)
As we've previously noted, Conroy can safely ignore anything his current Shadow Tony Smith does — the MP is either apathetic towards the portfolio or has been neutered from above — and the bumbling Bruce Billson was never more than a gnat buzzing around Conroy's ear.
But Minchin has forced Conroy to engage with him over the years, especially on the National Broadband Network (NBN) issue, which after all, keeps on providing fresh fodder for a vigilant Opposition to chew over. It was just several weeks ago that Minchin's game of block and tackle in the Senate ended Conroy's chances of getting his Telstra break-up legislation through parliament.
Now Minchin has gone, but those wanting a force to oppose Conroy should not fear.
For it was not Minchin or even Smith that dealt Conroy a major blow today in the midst of his celebration. It was the quietly spoken, self-assured Ludlam, whose tenaciousness has earned the public a look at the NBN Implementation Study and Conroy a trip to the principal's office.
It is perhaps fitting that as Minchin is leaving the stage, Ludlam is emerging as the defacto Shadow Communications Minister, in the absence of Opposition will to engage in the portfolio.
It was Ludlam's threat — and that of the Greens — to side with the Opposition on the Telstra legislation that forced Conroy over a barrel with the implementation study.
It is Ludlam who — slowly but surely — is bringing a modicum of transparency to a NBN process that has been almost completely opaque to the public from the start.
And it is Ludlam who — with the unlikely support of rats in Conroy's ranks like the good Senator Kate Lundy — may just bring enough pressure to bear on Conroy's internet filtering project that it may not be mandatory for all Australians after all.
There is no way that Conroy can get the filter legislation through the Senate, after all, with the Opposition blocking everything it can, without the support of Ludlam, the Greens and the other independent senators. And Ludlam has vowed to do his utmost to block the bill.
It is perhaps a truism about democracy that when one party appears to have too much power unchecked, another will arise to match it. Australians like balance and prefer even governments with strong mandates for change to have oversight. In the communications portfolio, Ludlam is currently the embodiment of that idea.
For my own part, I am glad that Conroy finally has a match who has strengths that play well against the good minister's weaknesses. Where Conroy in parliament is loud, brash and, frankly, abusive, Ludlam is quiet, considered, but relentless.
Where Conroy does not engage publicly with the public, Ludlam is happy to do so. Where Conroy can sometimes display a lack of knowledge about the telecommunications industry that is troubling, Ludlam has displayed a willingness to delve deep and consider all sides.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Greens are still a minor party, and their victories will to some extent depend on their ability to get the Opposition to continue stalling government initiatives.
But the renewed checks on balances on Conroy that Ludlam is bringing are a welcome fresh air in a portfolio that had begun to become stale. It'll be good to see both Conroy and his new opposite bring their best to the table. Game on.