Broadband Is Just The Start Of Turnbull’s Minefield

Bill Shorten’s shadow ministry line-up contains a little Easter egg – a tacit admission that, for the last six years, Labor’s telecommunications and media policy has been an unmitigated disaster.

Stephen Conroy was communications minister for all but the last months of the Rudd and Gillard governments. He was shadow communications minister for three years before that.

In other words, Conroy embodies Labor’s communications legacy. And he has now been shuffled off to defence.

This is a quite a downgrade. Shadow defence spokesman isn’t exactly a super-star position. And Conroy told Lateline he has an “ongoing interest” in communications. He sits on the United Nations Broadband Commission.

The National Broadband Network was supposed to be one of the government’s great nation-building reforms.

But before Shorten announced the shadow ministry, Conroy gave a belated confession: the NBN hasn’t gone to plan.

It was “overly ambitious”. It didn’t meet vital construction targets. In his words, “the construction model that NBN Co put in place hasn’t delivered”.

Bear in mind we’re talking about the second version of the NBN. The first version didn’t go to plan either.

In the 2007 election, Labor promised to “connect 98 per cent of Australians” to “true” broadband within five years. Six years of government later, there are about 70,000 households connected to the NBN. That’s less than 1 per cent of Australians.

(Conroy blames the construction industry for this fiasco. As if making sure the NBN could be feasibly built had nothing to do with him.)

So there goes that legacy.

Australia has never been blessed with outstanding communications ministers. But it is hard to conclude that the communications portfolio for the last six years has been anything but a disaster.

Conroy has a long list of indictments to his name.

The internet filter, for one – a national embarrassment which Conroy delayed and misrepresented for half a decade, until finally he disowned it in 2012. (Well, sort of. Politics aside, the filter lives on in section 313 of the Telecommunications Act.)

Or the series of licence fee rebates for free to air television networks, not just entrenching the networks as Australia’s most protected industry, but actually rewarding them for that privilege.

Or the media reform package earlier this year, so badly botched that it nearly sparked a leadership spill.

Another casualty of Conroy’s attempt to regulate the media was one of his few worthwhile initiatives: the Convergence review. This review was supposed to be a grand and necessary rethink of communications regulation. But, as I wrote in The Drum in March, that noble goal was trampled by Labor’s obsession with News Limited.

This litany of failures means that Malcolm Turnbull inherits the ministry at a critical moment.

Labor liked to imagine it was solving the broadband question once and for all. The NBN was the end of telecommunications history.

Now history is very much resumed. No doubt Turnbull is being swamped by telecommunications lobbyists jostling for a bite of NBN Mark III.

But apart from the NBN, there are political forces converging on the communications ministry which will be very hard to overcome.

Recall that the election-eve release of the Coalition’s cyber-safety policy included a variation of the internet filter Malcolm Turnbull had spent years opposing.

It’s not clear how the filter arrived in cyber-safety policy. But its arrival was revealing – exposing a divide between liberals in the Liberal ranks and the think-of-the-children types.

Turnbull quickly dropped the Coalition’s filter. It was deleted from the cyber-safety document.

But the next time there is a moral panic about children on Facebook or Twitter trolls, a filter will once again be proposed, and cabinet will earnestly consider it.

The pressure to ‘do something’ will be too great. The opponents of heavy-handed paternalism are too few.

As divisive as cyber-safety is, it has nothing on national security.

Under Labor, the Attorney General’s department wanted to compel internet service providers to record their customers’ online activities – the so-called ‘metadata’ – just in case those customers are later accused of a crime.

Conroy of course supported this mandatory data retention policy, and for a typically belligerent reason. He claimed the alternative to data retention would be to “abandon all laws” on the internet. Straw men don’t get strawier than this.

Labor put data retention on the backburner. But it is dead certain that data retention will be reconsidered by the Coalition. Perhaps quite soon.

Turnbull expressed “grave misgivings” about data retention in his 2012 Alfred Deakin lecture. Not just because data retention would be unconscionably intrusive, but because it would be a huge regulatory burden on the telecommunications sector – his portfolio responsibility.

But the ultimate decision about whether to introduce data retention will be taken not by the Communications Minister but the Attorney General, George Brandis.

Brandis’ subordinate, the head of ASIO David Irvine, is lobbying publicly for data retention.

Turnbull is about to discover that the influence of telecommunications lobbyists pales in comparison to the influence of national security lobbyists, most of whom lobby politicians from inside the government itself.

Turnbull wants to be a better minister than Stephen Conroy. With Conroy’s record, that might seem easy. But it isn’t.

Turnbull will have to resist pressure within the government and within his own party to be worse.