Stephen Conroy’s draconian media laws were damaging the Gillard government so irrevocably in March last year that Anthony Albanese invoked a rare parliamentary procedure that hadn’t been used for almost 40 years, to kill the bills and save Julia Gillard’s leadership.
As leader of the House, Mr Albanese, who was a supporter of Kevin Rudd and opposed to the media proposals, moved a motion to “discharge government business” on the remaining media bills, which permanently removed them from the agenda.
The use of the rare procedure protected the then prime minister from the humiliation of losing a vote on the controversial bills on the floor of the parliament.
Recognising the political dangers of the failing media reform bills, Mr Albanese went to Ms Gillard early on March 21 and the prime minister agreed to his plan to withdraw the bills and avoid a vote.
Former foreign minister Bob Carr has revealed that the “stupid” media-reform package, which included a government-appointed overseer of media ownership and press standards, was the final reason for his decision to abandon Ms Gillard and shift to supporting Mr Rudd’s return as prime minister.
In his newly published diary of the time, Mr Carr said Ms Gillard hadn’t had a political success last year and the media package and the way it was adopted had “destroyed any confidence I could have in her office and instincts’’.
Mr Albanese disagreed with the substance of the media changes proposed by Senator Conroy, then the communications minister, and was trying to remove any suggestion the proposals, which were opposed by the entire media industry, many cabinet members, the opposition and the crucial crossbench independents, would be revived.
March 21 was a day of running political dramas. As Simon Crean publicly imploded at his second press conference of the day and called for a Labor leadership spill, Mr Albanese was moving in the House of Representatives that the government business of the remaining media bills, including the proposal for a media overseer, be discharged.
A government hadn’t moved to discharge a bill since the early days of the Fraser government in 1976 when laws that were never going to be pursued were permanently withdrawn.
“It is clear to me that it (the media laws) does not have the support of the House of Representatives to proceed,” Mr Albanese said.
Then opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said the motion was a “humiliating backdown by the government”. “This was policy on the run,’’ Mr Turnbull said. “It was galloping along in a desperate effort to preserve the prime minister’s position, to preserve Julia Gillard.”
Mr Albanese’s parliamentary move was designed to kill off any prospect of Labor reviving the bills and to try to calm the media industry only six months from the scheduled election.
Mr Carr’s shift in support from Ms Gillard to Mr Rudd was crucial to her ultimate removal as prime minister.
Mr Carr said the content of the proposed media laws and how they had been “dumped” on cabinet without any chance of change had sealed his decision to move to the Rudd camp, which was agitating for a leadership change.
Ms Gillard suffered a bruising defeat on the media bills after stepping in to rescue the controversial reforms but failing to win over the key independents.
The then prime minister could not secure the support she needed to ram the changes through parliament because the independents turned their backs on the policy or issued impossible demands.
Labor caucus members were angry at the handling of the reforms and Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie blasted them as “shambolic”.
Ms Gillard’s decision to take over the negotiations added to her loss of authority as she struggled to hold on to her leadership.