You can probably hear the champagne corks popping in the offices of NBN Co in North Sydney today, with news that Stephen Conroy is retiring from politics.
Most of the political obituaries for Labor Senator Stephen Conroy will note his biggest legacy is the National Broadband Network, but Conroy spent the past few years being the project’s biggest rival.
Whenever NBN executives reluctantly came onto his turf — the Senate committee hearing rooms — a sly grin would appear on the Labor senator’s face. He relished the chance to grill them on what they had done to the project he had founded. Even the super-mellow CEO Bill Morrow lost his cool sometimes.
The NBN, often incorrectly claimed to be something developed by Conroy and former prime minister Kevin Rudd on the back of a beer coaster on a plane, will remain Conroy’s legacy. The ambitious plan to roll out fibre to around 93% of Australian households was an election winner for Labor in 2010, but constant delays in the rollout allowed Malcolm Turnbull to tweak the Coalition’s policy slightly enough to make it less of of a political issue and make it sound like the network would actually get on track if he were elected. Meanwhile, Labor’s insistence on red-button launches for a bunch of homes allegedly connected to the NBN but unable order a service gave the impression that it wasn’t going as well as planned.
Tech journalists had a difficult relationship with Conroy during his time as communications minister. Although lauded for the NBN policy, he was not as popular for the controversial policy to block material that had been refused classification via a mandatory internet filtering policy. His “spams and scams through the portal” comment also didn’t earn him much love in the tech sector. He gained awards for being a villain of the internet, and noted in his speech on Thursday that he had been a target for quite a lot of online as a result of the policy, which the government eventually dropped.
It wasn’t just tech journalists, either. The government’s antagonistic approach also got the telecommunications sector offside. Nowhere was that more apparent than the reaction when Conroy was revealed to have told an international conference some interesting view of government’s reach in the telco sector:
“The regulation of telecommunications powers in Australia is exclusively federal. That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room ‘if you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head. I have unfettered legal power.”
Before leaving the communications portfolio after Labor dumped Gillard for Rudd in 2013, Conroy had a few encounters with Turnbull. I moderated a debate between the pair, and they had been scheduled to be both in the studio with me, but at the last minute Conroy decided to set up remotely in Brunswick in Melbourne to show off an NBN connection (over a Google Hangout link, of all things). The debate was tense at times, peaking when Conroy began sledging Turnbull on his corporate history with HIH. This got under Turnbull’s skin, and the future prime minister called Conroy “a grub” and “a sad figure”. When the debate was over and the cameras were off, Turnbull ripped out his ear piece, clearly quite frustrated with Conroy.
When the Coalition came into government and the policy quickly fell apart, Conroy became the hero of what Turnbull mockingly called “fibre zealots” on forums like Whirlpool and on Twitter for his continual pursuit of the government on the NBN. Labor used its numbers in the Senate to set up a Labor-controlled Senate select committee specifically on the NBN. The Coalition had attempted to re-establish a joint committee chaired by a Coalition MP with a majority of government MPs, but Labor was having none of it.
Conroy held close to 20 committee hearings between 2013 and 2016, with NBN executives facing hours of questioning, sometimes late at night, as Conroy continually probed and pushed on minute details about the switch from his legacy to the so-called multi-technology mix. He was keen to ensure that the project remained as controversial as Turnbull had made it for Labor, and to a degree he was successful — but as the promises for a quick upgrade quickly faded, he didn’t need much help.
The senator knew all the detail of the technologies being pursued by the Coalition government, even though it wasn’t his area anymore. He was more knowledgeable on it than all of the other politicians on the committee, who would usually stick to questions about their own electorates or areas. Coalition staffers and politicians viewed the hearings as the “Conroy Show”, and the former minister sought to protect his legacy on what Turnbull had termed the “Conrovian” model, but those who keep a close eye on the NBN loved it. By the end of it, Conroy had taken to reading out the screen names of the Whirlpool users following the hearings on the live broadcast, and he made it known he was reading all the threads and all the information they were supplying to him, including the drinking games.
For the past three years while Labor has been in opposition, tech journalists always joked that, just as Paul Fletcher had been Malcolm Turnbull’s shadow shadow communications minister, the then-shadow defence minister was shadow communications minister Jason Clare’s shadow.
It was no surprise, then, when the AFP raided ALP offices during the election campaign seeking the source of leaks from NBN, they went to Conroy, not Clare. Conroy’s shock departure on Thursday should not have been a surprise, given the NBN committee had not been re-established. For that, NBN executives (not to mention their media reps, whom Conroy often targeted) will be breathing a sigh of relief.
Labor is fortunate to have many skilled staffers who have been across the detail over the years, especially Andy Byrne — the staffer who had his home raided by the AFP — but few within Labor have ever been able to prosecute the case for the NBN as Conroy was able to. Labor’s current shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland has potential but is still finding her feet in the role. Ed Husic is also a contender, but he is focused on other areas for now. Former Conroy staffer Tim Watts is also one to watch.
But with the government promising to complete most of the network rollout, and most people switching to the NBN — in theory — in this term of Parliament, Labor will need to replace the NBN institutional knowledge that walks out the door with Conroy.