When are we going to get a Minister for Communications who is actually worth the crumpet? We haven’t had one for at least twelve years, perhaps longer – and this at a time when we are living through technological changes equivalent in import to the invention of the printing press.

By “good” I don’t just mean smart. Arguably we have had that. Helen Coonan was a clever-clever corporate lawyer, good at cutting deals that kept everyone manageably unhappy. Senator Alston was smart enough – but a weird combination of ideologue and cynic.

The history of media and communications policy in Australia is a comic tragedy of lost opportunity and favors for mates. It would be nice to think this might change. I am beginning to lose hope.

What we need is someone with vision, integrity, not blinded by ideological fervour and with the ability, respect and authority to carry the day in Cabinet at least some of the time.

So what about the incumbent, Stephen Conroy? A couple of months ago an old Labor warhorse (well, okay, he was more dressage) said to me that Conroy had “an opportunity to grow” in the position. I asked if this was euphemistic, but the Dressage Horse denied it. Conroy had been seen as a numbers man and “factional dalek”. Now he had a chance to show if there was more to him.

Well. We’re still waiting for the growth.

Mark Day says all there is to say about the way in which Conroy yesterday re-announced the previous government’s initiatives with slightly different badging and bigger dollar figures – after having bagged them comprehensively while in opposition.

This on its own would be mildly amusing. The re-announced initiatives were merely necessary, rather than visionary. It is also true that Conroy has only had his feet under the desk for four months. But consider the rest of his record. Labor did not release a communications policy in the lead up to the last election. As shadow minister Conroy or his people promised it repeatedly from as early as April 2007, but it never emerged. Now suspicions are firming that this was because nobody did the hard work needed to put something decent together.

Nevertheless I hear people from various sectors who have met Conroy seem to come away pleased. He is a charmer. But he doesn’t make promises. He gives everyone the impression of being sympathetic, but they get the message that he is limited by lack of support in Cabinet and a tight budgetary outlook.

How long can this be allowed to continue? Surely if the Rudd Government is to be well remembered, it will need to get to grips with communications and the technological opportunities that, over the next few decades, will transform everything from domestic life to democratic forms.

It is an awfully long time since we have had vision in the communications portfolio, and apart from Rudd’s broadband initiative, there is no sign of anything coming from Conroy.

What should he be doing? For starters, where are the initiatives to encourage new media entrants to the industry? Where are the determined moves to fix the problems faced by community broadcasting, which faces slow fade out unless granted digital spectrum? Where are some announcements on what to do with all that extra spectrum that will be freed up once digital switch-off is achieved? Where are some statements of intent, at least, on the ABC and on Channel 3?

And what about all that datacasting Channel A and B stuff that Coonan put out? Will Conroy merely re badge that too, or do what the Productivity Commission recommended seven years ago and drop the nonsense and simply get on with the business of opening up the spectrum to innovative new players as fast as possible.

That’s just for starters – the basics. Stephen Conroy, we would still like a communications policy. And soon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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