It’s perhaps a sign of things to come that ever since Tony Abbott brought Malcolm Turnbull onto the frontbench, we’ve been talking about Turnbull rather than Abbott. Turnbull can’t help it — even without mentioning the L-word, he’s energetic, vibrant, thoughtful, and loves having his say on pretty much anything. It speaks volumes that the only sensible sounds to come from the Coalition on the suddenly-live issue of a carbon price in the last week have been from Turnbull, rather than his leader or the unfortunate Greg Hunt.

So far, the focus has been on Turnbull’s efforts to “demolish” the NBN. But there’s a lot more to the Communications portfolio than broadband, although Turnbull will have to develop a whole new broadband policy given the debacle created by Tony Smith. At least, unlike Smith who ummed and ahhed about the net filter for so long eventually Joe Hockey went and announced his policy for him, Turnbull went out early and hard on the filter. The clash between Stephen Conroy and Turnbull on that alone will be fascinating. What a shame they’re in separate chambers.

But what’s exciting about Turnbull in communications is that he presents a genuine chance to substantially advance communications policy further away from the incumbent-based thinking that has dominated communications policy since before WW2.

I say “further” away because one of the real successes of the Rudd Government was to break out of the traditional telco regulation thinking that both sides of politics had been stuck in since the 1980s. Labor realised that the telco regulation model in Australia was fundamentally and irrevocably flawed — and had been since Kim Beazley and the public sector unions defeated Paul Keating in Cabinet in 1990 and imposed a vertically-integrated Telstra and a “managed duopoly” on Australian telecommunications, a decision reinforced by the Coalition’s sale of a monolithic Telstra with an infrastructure access regime designed to provide lifelong employment for lawyers and nothing else. The decision to impose structural separation on Telstra and build the NBN were the result of that unshackling of policy from history.

The Coalition, meanwhile, was stuck with the dead hand of Nick Minchin on communications policy. Minchin was hostile to anything that threatened his legacy as Finance Minister — a privatised, vertically-integrated Telstra. If there’s one person who isn’t happy to see Turnbull take the reins in Communications (or, really, anywhere else), it’s Minchin.

On media policy, though, Labor remains stuck in the same rut they and the Liberals have always been in, slavishly regulating in favour of industry incumbents, and particularly the free-to-air commercial TV networks. This has only been exacerbated by the deep animosity between Labor and News Ltd, which is now so intense it’s hard to see how, for example, any reduction in the anti-siphoning list would be endorsed by Caucus, even if it was as a trade-off for allowing the FTAs to multichannel listed events.

Turnbull is of course not without his baggage — several truckloads of it — when it comes to media policy, although much of it is from a quarter-century in the past now.

Here’s the true challenge for Turnbull, one maybe only he out of anyone in the current Parliament could manage: match and better Labor’s feat of breaking free from the traditional obsession with incumbents that both sides have had, and move toward what would be Australia’s first genuine communications policy, rather than a broadcasting policy or telecommunications policy. This isn’t about the dreaded, overhyped idea of “convergence” or “future-proofing” policy, it’s about identifying the best ways to deliver communications policy’s unusual mix of economic, social and cultural priorities in a sector burdened with a heavy government role through regulation, ownership of assets (like spectrum), service delivery (the USO) and direct participation (like the national broadcasters).

One of the first challenges for Turnbull will be anti-siphoning, which must be sorted out by the Government before the end of the year. What does Turnbull think of NRL matches in southern states? What about the flip-flop for Adelaide and Perth? What’s the best mechanism to determine which four AFL matches should be “delisted“?  Anti-siphoning takes politicians directly into the most basic retail politics of all — Aussies and their sport. And it takes them in deep enough to obscure the basic question of why on earth politicians are trying to be TV programmers when they should be letting audiences decide what they want to watch.

And therein lies the first step toward a better communications policy for Turnbull — considering policy from the perspective of media users. Everyone else gets to have a say in communications policy — the incumbent oligopolists, their competitors, the academic experts, the lobbyists, even the backbench politicians — but consumers have traditionally been treated as a silent, mindless herd and their interests ignored while the great and the good have worked out which Kerry will get which, how Rupert can be kept happy and how the mum and dad shareholders can be looked after.

The interests of media users might be a good place to start for building a new communications policy from the ground up.