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Tuesday, 15 September 2009 17:14

Conroy: Factional deal-maker to policy hard-head

For those who don't know him well at all – say, me and Telstra – Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has made a remarkable trip in a short time: from factional deal-maker in opposition to policy hard-head in Government.

For me, it has been merely interesting to watch. For Telstra … oh … so painful.

Conroy has played the politics of the NBN unbelievably well – since long before the last election. And he has been, from the outside looking in at least, unwavering. He has been clear in his messaging, and has not backed off from those messages.

I have said that Conroy has been a much better performer in government than he was in opposition, although people that know him well say that’s wrong.

They say Telstra’s second biggest mistake was to treat Conroy in his first year of the Rudd Government as the factional deal-maker they believed he was. The expectation was that he would negotiate a neat and palatable compromise, the way that deal makers do.

And of course, Telstra’s biggest mistake was in pissing off Kevin Rudd. By treating the Government with such contempt in its short response to the RFP, Telstra is said to have filled the Prime Minister with about as much rage as the man can handle – and he’s apparently good at it.

Anyway, Conroy wasn’t going to squib on broadband. And with an annoyed and therefore highly-motivated PM behind him, Telstra had set itself on a hiding to nothing.

By the time Conroy had finished saying the words "The Government will require the functional separation of Telstra, unless it decides to voluntarily structurally separate," the industry had changed.

A large part of the Conroy process in recent months seems to have been aimed at making sure Telstra’s board and senior management really understood that he meant what he was saying. To me, the $250 million regional backhaul RFP that closed recently was simply a very expensive message about the NBN to Telstra: YES, WE ARE GOING TO DO THIS.

Well, the regional backhaul program will also be useful in the 2010 election year lead-up, with more hard-hat opportunities across regional Australia and through electorate after electorate. And then there's its actual usefulness as a communications pipe to consider ...

Our communications Minister’s march through the first term of the Rudd Government has impressive – and that includes the way he’s handled internet filtering.

Internet users can get completely feral about filtering and I’m not a huge fan of what government is proposing (and purportedly trialling.) But I would point out – just quietly and keep it to youself – that under Stephen Conroy, after two years and undoubtedly furious departmental activity … nothing! NOTHING HAS HAPPENED.


Against the over-reach that might have been attempted by a zealot - given the nature of what he’s been asked to implement - I am definitely counting that as a win.

The structural reform agenda announced at Parliament House were quite stunning, if not entirely unexpected. Successive communications ministers have attempted to unscramble the egg – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – and none have got close.

There will undoubtedly be controversies and challenges with the NBN roll-out. That’s often the nature of projects of this scale and ambition.

But for the time being, the tech sector should savour a day in parliament in which Question Time was dominated in both the Senate and the House by discussion of fundamental ICT. And where a Prime Minister talked at length about things like broadband access speeds, wholesale pricing and structural reform of the telecommunications sector.

On a final note, Stephen Conroy seemed happy enough to spread the blame around "previous government’s of both persuasions" for the current regulatory problems in the industry. Bad decisions going back to 1991, when Telstra was set up in its current form under Hawke/Keating, to the 1997 T1 sale, as well as poor competition decisions before and since under Howard – all contributed to the current mess, he implied.

He repeated it generously during an interview with Sky News’ David Speers. Maybe he is trying to avoid the current history wars spilling over into the telecom sector and muddying the waters.

Although I doubt it.

Anyway, Rudd was having none of it: "The reason the government took the extraordinary step of saying that we would build a national broadband network is that we saw 12 years of conspicuous failure on broadband on the part of those opposite," he told Malcolm Turnbull during question time, before repeating the theme. Again. And again.

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