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