Several of Stephen Conroy’s harshest critics have backed the idea that Julia Gillard should hand his Communications portfolio to fellow Labor Senator Kate Lundy this morning.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tonight acknowledged on national television that Gillard had challenged him for the Labor crown, with a leadership spill to be held this morning at 9AM. Multiple reports — including Lundy herself, who will vote for Gillard — expect the deputy PM to win the vote.
It is not yet known which way Conroy will vote, although he is believed to be part of the ALP right faction which has been reported to have been instrumental in building support for Gillard within the party ranks.
Electronic Frontiers Australia chair Colin Jacobs — who has been engaged in a running battle with Conroy over the Government’s controversial internet filter — said there was “no question” that Lundy understood the technology industry better than Conroy and had great relationships in the sector.
“I personally would love to see a change in direction in the ministry, given what we have seen in the past few years,” Jacobs said, noting particularly industry disapproval of the filter policy. Lundy is currently pushing for modifications to be made to the policy that would allow Australians to either opt-in or opt-out of having their internet connections filtered at the ISP level.
“The filter has dominated and totally tarnished Conroy’s reputation when it comes to these issues,” said Jacobs. He noted also that Conroy’s personal demeanour – including his “tough parliamentary style” had not made him the most popular person.
Internode engineer Mark Newton — also a notable Conroy critic — said “without question”, Lundy had more respect in the technology sector. “Conroy is a laughing stock in the IT world,” he said.
“You could put a pot plant in the ministry and get a better response.”
In comparison, he said, Lundy had demonstrated a personal style that was “a lot more nuanced” and more consultative than Conroy. Newton noted that Lundy had spent a lot of time in parliament working within committee structures. “You can see that in the way she has approached the filter censorship issue,” he said.
Lundy has been vocal on the internet filter issue, but one question about the ACT senator would be how she would handle the National Broadband Network issue — one of the biggest tasks in the Communications Portfolio.
Jacobs noted that Conroy had achieved some breakthroughs in the NBN area recently — especially the $11 billion deal that brought Telstra into the NBN fold over the weekend. Conroy’s tough style might help in negotiating with powerful telcos like Telstra, he said — but ultimately the EFA chief said he would still back Lundy over Conroy in that area.
Newton said he believed the NBN was misplaced in the Communications portfolio in the first place.
“The Rudd front bench has an infrastructure minister, and yet the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history is being looked after by a Communications Minister,” he said, noting it might be worth creating a separate minister just to look after the NBN.
“Give it to someone who can provide it with dedicated attention,” Newton said. “If you leave it to a Communications Minister, they’re going to be distracted with issues like internet censorship.”
Rudd and Conroy have appeared to have a strong working relationship over the past few years, with Rudd backing his Communications Minister on issues ranging from the NBN to the internet filter and even about Google’s inadvertent collection of payload data through Wi-Fi scanning by its Street View cars.
Less is known about Gillard’s relationship with either Rudd or Conroy, or even Gillard’s own attitude towards technology policy.
Jacobs noted that the ALP’s right faction had, however, been instrumental in putting Gillard forward to challenge Rudd yesterday. With Conroy being a member of the right faction, it would have to take some “pretty crazy” moves to see him losing his portfolio, the EFA chair noted.
Newton said it was a bit hard to say what Gillard’s views on key issues such as the NBN and the filter might be — because he believed Gillard would have been fairly restricted in what she could say, as she had been under Kevin Rudd’s shadow as his deputy for several years. However, he noted that Rudd had kept his ministers very strongly under control, and flagged the potential for Gillard to allow her cabinet more leniency.
Although Newton and Jacobs were interviewed separately, both ultimately expressed frustration about the choices that party leaders have made in the communications portfolio.
“I don’t think Australia has ever in its history had a successful communications minister,” said Newton. “As far back as I can remember, Australia has been poorly served by communications ministers,” agreed Jacobs.