Let's face it: Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, drives the Government’s National Broadband Network and Internet filtering measures. They are his initiatives and their future depends - to some degree - on his performance and imagination. In this in-depth interview he discusses why natural disasters will never affect NBN’s funding and the voluntary Internet filter’s introduction.
David Ramli (DR): Would you ever under any circumstance consider cutting NBN funding to help disaster relief?
Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy (SC): What Tony Abbott demonstrated was that not only is he not ‘Bill Gates’, but he’s also the economic illiterate Peter Costello said he was. He just doesn’t understand budgets because the NBN is almost entirely off-budget. It’s not something you can just reach into and use for other purposes.
DR: Okay, but in terms of any of the funds dedicated to the NBN would you ever consider redirecting any of it. Because there will be a good sum of public money that will go into it.
SC: The Government put forward a package just last week that balances the rebuilding of Queensland as well as the continuing support for the NBN. It continues support for education and for health and manages to maintain all the Government’s priorities at the same time as helping people in Queensland with all the challenges they’ll face over the next 12 months.
DR: And so the NBN will never be a part of any cuts?
SC: No, the NBN is not on the budget. They can’t use the NBN and they made this mistake at the last election when they got their numbers wrong. I would’ve thought after that humiliation, where they made all these claims they could save but got the numbers substantially wrong, they’d learn.
DR: Are you worried that 28 per cent of Australians surveyed recently think the NBN getting scrapped is the best way to pay for Queensland’s flood relief?
SC: I don’t take a lot of notice of polls that don’t set out the full facts. There’s a brilliant Yes Minister episode, which demonstrated how you can get any answer you want depending on the question.
DR: So you feel the survey was an example of push polling?
SC: No, I’m just saying that The Australian after three months of campaigning against the NBN could only drag 19 per cent of people to say they were opposed to it. But the Liberals have got their supporters and they’ve got a mantra on it.
DR: So you’re not worried about that poll?
SC: A vast majority of people support the NBN. In any of the polls no matter how biased the questions have been to get a particular outcome against it, a vast majority of people continue to support the National Broadband Network because they know what they’re getting right now is not good enough.
DR: Last year, right before the election you argued that no one really wanted a business plan and that it was “an entirely manufactured, confected debate started by the Liberal Party”.
SC: Well we’ve never said we’d release the commercial in confidence material and that’s what we’ve not done.
DR: So you wouldn’t see your release of the business plan as clashing with your previous comments?
SC: No, the Senate wanted more information and at the end of the day the Senate is the Senate and they refused to pass legislation until we provided more information so we did. But we will not be providing confidential information that goes to commercial issues that would allow a tenderer to seek information that would prejudice the commercial operations of the NBN.
DR: The Telstra deal hasn’t been completed yet and it missed its Australia Day deadline of producing something for shareholders. Are you worried at all by the slow speed?
SC: I’m optimistic. I’m privy to a whole range of the discussions and it’s just an incredibly complex thing. No one else has done what we’re doing and there is no quick fix solution.
DR: Some people are saying it is David Thodey’s way of dragging the process out a little longer. Is that true?
SC: The Telstra leadership has been 100 per cent behind the deal we announced. There is an enormous amount of legal work, discussion and debate to make sure we get it absolutely right. I’d rather get it right than rush for a deadline that meant we got a sub-optimal outcome.
DR: The Future Fund doesn’t seem to think Telstra has done enough with the NBN.
SC: The Future Fund makes its own decisions and has a board of guardians. Clearly there’s an issue between it and Telstra, which quite rightly says it can’t selectively brief anybody because there are corporate laws they have to abide by. But I’m sure once we finalise this agreement a lot more information will be available to all investors.
DR: How well would you rate the Labor Government’s performance in the Communications portfolio over 2010?
SC: In terms of the targets that we set, we met them. We passed the legislation, connected people in Tasmania, the regional backbone program is well underway as is construction in those first five release sites. On target, on budget, meeting the expectations that we set.
We released the business plan which again reiterated what McKinsey said and it put to bed a lot of the completely bogus arguments of Malcolm Turnbull. There’s no point calling for a cost-benefit analysis when there’s a business case there that demonstrates you can get a rate of return that the Government is more than happy with and gives taxpayers all the money back plus interest.
Broadband is now the fourth utility. There’s going to be an explosion of interest in Australia because we’re going to have one of if not the best networks in the world. If you tell people around the world that broadband became the second-biggest issue in a Federal election their jaws hang. It continues to be front-page news on a not-quite-daily basis.
DR: How did it feel almost getting gagged by the Senate?
SC: I think it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. I take no notice. The problem Turnbull and Abbott have is they’re advancing a sub-standard policy agenda – a second-rate network argument.
DR: The NSW Government has all but changed over, you’ve got a barely Labor-controlled Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia have changed hands and Queensland Labor is looking shaky. Are you worried that all these State Governments, with whom you have a close dependency, are shifting and talking against the NBN in some cases?
SC: John Howard managed to govern when all States and Territories were in Labor hands so I think if you look at the thirst from the public for the NBN, that will ultimately win the day.
DR: Aren’t you even slightly concerned?
SC: We welcome the States’ support. If they choose not to support the NBN then we’ll continue to plough on because it doesn’t require permission or legislative approval from any State Government.
DR: You could have the numbers to push through legislation that can force the States to cooperate, would you consider that?
SC: We’ve been engaged in lots of conversations with State Governments around the country in terms of regulatory changes and none of them have said no to us yet.
DR: In terms of Internet filtering, it’s gone voluntary and nobody has actually implemented one yet.
SC: At the press conference with Optus, Telstra and iPrimus they indicated it would take some time to implement the systems so I think you’re jumping the gun there. We’ve demonstrated there is no impact on speed with a filter and that’s now unarguable. People have individual concerns about individual things that might be captured and every Australian has the opportunity to put their view forward about what should be included in the “Refused Classification” category. I’m very relaxed about the outcome of that and I’m not seeking to impose my views on what should or shouldn’t be in RC.
DR: But by your argument, every single day without a voluntary filter is a day that children are exposed to bad content on the Internet. How soon would you want to see a voluntary filter get put into place?
SC: When we made the announcement they indicated it would take some time to modify their existing systems. They all said it would be within 6-12 months to revamp their systems and as far as I’m aware progress is still good. So I’m very relaxed about it.
DR: Are you disappointed more companies haven’t come on board?
SC: With all the controversy around it I understand why they want to wait and see. The voluntary filter is just about child porn so I would encourage all Australian ISPs to support it. But that’s entirely in their hands. We’ll continue to work our way through the classification arguments, which is in the hands of the Australian public.
DR: David Bartlett recently left his post as Premier and IT minister. The locals say it’s a blow, would you agree?
SC: There wasn’t a better, more articulate advocate for IT or the NBN than David. I understand entirely what he means when he talks about the pressure of family and I’m faced with a young family myself and these positions at times can be very difficult. I congratulate David on the decision he made and I’ll miss him. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with Lara (Giddings) yet and I’ve known her for many, many years. From all of her comments she is a 100 per cent supporter of the NBN.
DR: Lindsay Tanner left for family reasons, as did David Bartlett. You’ve got a four-year old daughter and a wife, so have you ever considered quitting such a strenuous job and becoming an average family guy?
SC: I am privileged to hold the position that I do. The public put a lot of trust in the Gillard Government and myself to deliver the National Broadband Network. The pressures of office nowadays particularly with the advent of the Internet and 24/7 blogging, tweeting, and more mean the 24 hour cycle is now a 48 hour cycle because there’s such a thirst for information and news. This means the demands on anyone in public office and senior business is increasing faster and faster. We often joke that three years of Government today is like nine years of Government 10 years ago so it burns people up faster.
Lindsay and David are demonstrations of that but I’m committed to seeing through the NBN and the transition to digital television. But with the constant travel I was away in terms of working weeks about 8-9 months of the year in 2010. Because I’m a Senator I’m lucky I get home on weekends, but the demands on your family life are substantial.
Lindsay and David’s announcements bring home to you that there is a cost at a family level when you’re away this much. I’m very conscious of that and I try and prioritise as best I can but the constant demands of the job are increasing. But that’s just the way of life and it will only get faster.