Minchin is gaining on Conroy

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy needs to stop handing his opposite Nick Minchin free kicks and put some transparency back into the National Broadband Network process before he finds himself losing favour with Chairman Rudd.

commentary As this writer predicted he would, our courageous communications minister is finding his parliamentary opposite increasingly tough to deal with as time goes on.

News editor Renai LeMay (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CBSi)

When former Howard Minister Nick Minchin first took up arms against Stephen Conroy in September last year, there were those who theorised the veteran parliamentarian would be too battle-weary to truly take up the fight.

[Conroy's principal difficulty] has proven to be the short-sighted, unpopular and controversial decision to withhold key documents associated with the NBN tender process

There did seem to be early evidence for this idea; Minchin's first steps in the communications portfolio were a little shaky, as if he were trying on an old pair of shoes for the first time in years. And Conroy, 10 years his junior, still seemed on a roll due to the immense public support for his National Broadband Network (NBN) policy.

How quickly things change.

Since that time, Conroy has handed the shadow communications minister a constant series of easy wins on a platter. And Minchin and his tenacious staff have taken full advantage of them.

First amongst these has proven to be the short-sighted, unpopular and controversial decision to withhold key documents associated with the NBN tender process. The minister's rationale for not releasing the reports, which contain recommendations from an expert panel and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for the terminated $4.7 billion NBN tender, is that they contain commercially sensitive information.

There is some logic to this justification; after all, the disclosure of network information appears to be exactly why fibre network owner Pipe Networks is in court with analyst house Market Clarity, which among other things, sells extensive maps of Australian network topography.

However, this ignores the political reality in which Conroy finds himself.

There remains significant doubt as to the extent that either report recommended the government build its own $43 billion fibre-to-the-home NBN as a replacement for the previous $4.7 billion initiative, which apparently did not attract suitable bids.

As Minchin has pointed out, it remains doubtful that Treasury Secretary Ken Henry would recommend such a strategy without a cost/benefit analysis into the tens of billions of dollars of spending, which expert panel members have acknowledged they did not perform.

The constant debate about what many have described as the unrealistic economics of the NBN reinforces the impression its $43 billion cost was drawn up on the back of an envelope in a meeting on the Prime Minister's private jet.

Secondly, in this writer's opinion, there are questions on whether the ACCC would have recommended a policy that would go against chair Graeme Samuel's long cherished desire for strong infrastructure-based telecommunications competition, instead delivering a new fibre-based monopoly similar to our copper-based monopoly.

It is hard to believe Samuel would wish to gift his successors with several decades' worth of wrangling on the terms under which access seekers will buy services from Telstra 2.0, to coin Malcolm Turnbull's words.

Yet the media furore over these and any other concerns contained in the advisory reports would be months dead now if Conroy had simply released the secret NBN documents the day after the NBN decision was announced instead of escaping a Senate Order to do so through a debatable technicality.

At the time, the government could have undercut the reports with whatever rhetoric they chose and pushed ahead with their own agenda (a time-honoured approach).

Instead, until the reports are released (or leaked), every tiny revelation from their pages gives Minchin ammunition to needle Conroy.

The inability of Conroy's office to even promptly release the publicly available registration documents for the NBN Company, and the fact that Conroy and Rudd are currently having closed door meetings with many of Australia's state governments and telcos about the future of the NBN have done nothing but reinforce the impression that there is a lack of transparency surrounding the NBN process.

Add to that the constant debate about what many have described as the unrealistic economics of the NBN reinforces the impression its $43 billion cost was drawn up on the back of an envelope in a meeting on the Prime Minister's private jet.

It's all just fuel for the fire Minchin is lighting under Conroy.

When you take into account the sheer outrage evoked by the extremely unpopular plans Conroy is enacting to filter Australia's internet for illegal content, the good minister's position is starting to look a little shaky.

There's no doubt that Conroy continues to enjoy Kevin Rudd's support; keeping the ear of the Prime Minister is all important for a minister under fire. But with others like the technically minded Kate Lundy standing in the wings, Conroy shouldn't take Rudd's backing as a given. It's time the minister started playing a tougher political game, West Wing-style.