Stephen Conroy doesn’t have the easiest of portfolios. Not merely does he have to oversee communications infrastructure, he’s responsible for regulating the media sector. But since he moved from being shadow Communications Minister to the real thing, virtually his entire focus has been on the former rather than the latter.
A check with broadcasting industry people yesterday confirmed that virtually no decisions have been made by Conroy in relation to media policy issues. Admittedly, the urgency attaching to the CDMA shut-down and the Government’s hell-for-leather broadband exercise are absent from a lot of broadcasting issues.
But after five months, Conroy’s broadcasting decision-making has been confined to delaying the digital switchover date still further – to 2013 – and reheating some digital leftovers in the office fridge from the Coonan era (Conroy has the same suite in the Ministerial wing) relating to digital television transition.
This was after he had gone through the charade of implementing Lindsay Tanner’s hairy-chested commitment to “abolish” Digital Australia, then promptly creating a “Digital Switchover Taskforce” which bore an uncanny resemblance, in personnel, structure and function, to the previous body.
On everything else, we wait. Margaret Simons has already described the difficulties for the community sector in participating in the launch of digital radio on 1 January next year.
Digital radio is shaping as an even more underwhelming launch than that of digital TV back in 2001, and is heavily dependent on Government funding – not for the commercial sector, but for both ABC and SBS and community radio, which will fill will out the suite of digital services.
There were radio industry concerns that this funding would be a casualty of the “tough as all hell” Budget (as it was described yesterday by the Prime Minister, channelling The Duke), but these appeared to have been allayed.
But the new process for independent appointments to the ABC and SBS Boards has yet to emerge. Conroy appeared to have a genuinely open mind about how the process would work in detail when quizzed about it at Estimates in February, but in the interim first John Gallagher’s appointment expired, and this week Ron Brunton’s does as well, leaving two ABC vacancies. We’ve also yet to see the bill implementing the Government’s sublimely stupid commitment to restore the position of staff-elected director to that Board.
While this will doubtless be welcomed in the latte-littered lairs of the Friends of the ABC, perhaps we can optimistically hope that Conroy has dispensed with it, having realised it will have the Life on Mars effect of making the Government look like a bunch of crazed Whitlamites.
Another supremely dumb idea, that of imposing a media-specific public interest on media company transactions, has also – pleasingly – disappeared without trace. This was never a commitment, but more of a ministerial fancy on the part of Conroy. More seriously, the long-delayed digital channels A and B also remain mired in a bureaucratic-technical loop between the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Once upon a time, these channels were meant to be an important offset to the reduction in media diversity likely to be caused by the previous Government’s media laws. At the moment they remain off in the limbo of spectrum problems.
We’ve also seen nothing on reforms to the anti-siphoning scheme, the anti-competitive scam that prevents sporting rights holders from selling their rights to the highest bidder unless it’s one of the free-to-air oligopolists. Conroy has committed to continue the previous Government’s “use it or lose it” approach and he seems to have done exactly that, for under Helen Coonan “use it or lose it” was much-announced but never quite led to anything being removed from the anti-siphoning list. As a dedicated soccer fan, however, you suspect the first thing Conroy wants to do is add the ethnic game to the protected list, not remove anything.
Conroy may also have an aversion to content issues. According to industry sources, he regards the problem of extra funding for the ABC (necessary if the Government imposes a drama quota on the broadcaster, as promised before the election) as an issue for Peter Garrett as Arts Minister.
Problem is, Conroy has responsibility for the national broadcasters – the relevant Acts are within his portfolio responsibilities and the Boards report through him to Parliament. The ABC probably never had a chance of getting money in this budget, but with Ministers shunting responsibility between them, that chance is zero.
To be fair, none of these issues are easy, and Conroy, who is also Deputy Leader in the Senate, hasn’t exactly been idle on the difficult infrastructure-related issues of broadband and CDMA, as well as protecting his patch from the depredations of the razor gang. Media policy also invariably attracts the attention of the Prime Minister and his office, adding an extra layer of decision-making and process. Rudd has tasked Conroy to develop a more strategic approach to national broadcasting issues, including international broadcasting responsibilities, and a special unit has been established with his department. Conroy will also address ACMA’s RadComms 08 conference tomorrow, at which he may discuss progress on a number of unresolved spectrum issues.
But having bagged his predecessor for “policy paralysis and complacency” a few weeks ago, Conroy might want to start producing the goods in media policy sometime soon. Coonan managed media reform and the sale of Telstra while also being Deputy Senate Leader. It can be done.
Full disclosure: Bernard Keane is a former DBCDE officer.