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Friday, 10 September 2010 18:51

Gillard Cabinet: My two-bits worth


In all the speculation about the likely make-up of the Gillard Cabinet, there is one sure thing: Stephen Conroy will retain the Communications portfolio. And that's a good thing for the sector, which will no doubt welcome the continuity.

That's just speculation on my part, of course.

But if ever there was a portfolio that needed the on-going attention of a successful Minister, it is Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Senator Conroy has said publicly he wants to retain the portfolio, and there is nothing to suggest he hasn't earned that reward.

As much as Julia Gillard probably wants to keep things simple in this complex Parliament, you might reasonably expect Senator Conroy's portfolio to be expanded to include industry development for the IT sector - excising it from the industry portfolio.

There is too much at stake for an unwarranted change of leadership. The politics of broadband (which Conroy has shown himself to be a master) is as difficult now as it ever has been.

And the future of the National Broadband Network is still fraught.

The Gillard Government won't have its majority in the Senate until the middle of next year. And as doubtful as it will be that Stephen Conroy will want to offer Steve Fielding a last hurrah before he exits the Chamber, you can be sure that Government will want its reform bill passed as soon as possible.

There are Telstra negotiations to be completed. There are changed priorities in the roll-out of the NBN (stand-by for outer-metropolitan to be classified as regional in the out-to-in strategy.)

Keeping a Minister in a portfolio is not just about the Minister, obviously. Senator Conroy has a great team with deep experience in the sector. Consider that chief of staff Mark Tapley has been neck-deep in communications policy since forever.

It is unlikely that Senator Conroy will be left to the job himself, and will be given a Parliamentary Secretary or junior minister of some description.

With any luck, the Prime Minister will get ACT senator Kate Lundy off the bench and into the game, specifically to work on industry development issues for the tech sector.

There is nothing to suggest that this will happen, given Julia Gillard has a bunch of people pushing for promotions. But she could do a lot worse.

Ideally industry development for the sector should be moved to Stephen Conroy's portfolio - if only because so much of that development will be leveraged from the NBN infrastructure.

But if it's not, then Kate Lundy should be given a slot in Kim Carr's ministry to take charge of IT. Because Kim Carr has been disinterested and ineffective in relation to the tech sector. Frankly, it's time for Senator Carr to step back.

As for the other side of the aisle, Tony Abbott is expected to keep his front bench relatively unchanged. But it would be strange indeed if Tony Smith were to keep his shadow communications role.

Regardless of what you might have thought about the Coalition communications policy at the election (and I thought it was poorly thought-out), you couldn't fail to notice how badly Mr Smith seemed to understand the issues, given how long he had the portfolio.

Communications is a tough gig, a very tough gig. And Mr Smith was found out.

During the campaign, the most effective spokesman on communications issues - by a country mile - was Malcolm Turnbull, and I hope he is given the role permanently.

Broadband will continue to be one of the central issues of the next Parliament, and operating in the lower house Mr Turnbull could be devastatingly effective and raise the level of debate.

Lindsay Tanner is no longer there to represent Senator Conroy in the lower house, and that's a blow. Given the profile of broadband for the coming Parliament, I hope Julia Gillard takes the role herself. Turnbull V Gillard would make for some fabulous Question Times.

Meanwhile, the Greens' communications spokesman remains the West Australian senator Scott Ludlam. This is also a good thing.

He has some years experience in the portfolio now. And anyone who saw the debate at the National Press Club will have been impressed at his contribution - coming across as the voice of reason on the most controversial of issues.


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