The return of Kevin Rudd as the Prime Minister of Australia has seen the downfall of one of the key architects of the National Broadband Network: Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who had few options left after hitching his wagon with Julia Gillard, the last time Labor dethroned its leader.
Conroy's substantially long tenure has been memorable, not just for the NBN and certainly not for all the right reasons. The red underpants comments, a less than perfect spectrum auction and the less than dignified slinging matches with his opposition counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, all illustrate a curious combination of idealism, belligerence and just plain bull-headedness.
But make no mistake, these are some big boots to fill and it’s unlikely Rudd can find anyone in his throng of supporters who can handle the job.
The former communications minister’s ascendancy from a Labor attack dog to a key policy figure is testament to his steel, and Conroy will at the very least take comfort in the fact that he leaves behind a significant legacy. He will rightfully take credit for the grand ambitions of the Labor NBN and for purportedly bringing Telstra to heel.
Conroy’s biggest victory will be the fact that he managed to drag a reticent Coalition kicking and screaming to accept the reality of a state-owned National Broadband Network. However, what he won’t want to look back at is the inherent futility of his endeavours.
Telstra may have been structurally separated but it’s set to emerge as an even more powerful entity in the post-NBN landscape. Although that may say more about Telstra boss David Thodey’s leadership acumen than an outright failing on Conroy’s part.
Betting the farm on fibre was a gutsy move but the admirable bullishness and lack of flexibility may have also sown the seeds of the mess Labor’s NBN finds itself in.
As industry analyst Tony Brown points out, Conroy has made an extraordinary impact on the telecommunications market but his truculence means that there will be few tears shed by the industry.
"In the end Conroy's insistence on putting fibre into nearly every home in the country has made the deployment of the network extremely complex and time consuming for NBN Co.”
It highlights an interesting feature of Conroy’s tenure – for the first time communications issues took precedence over media issues. Although, he did manage to get pilloried for his attempts to regulate the media.
Conroy recently mentioned that media regulation was still very much on his agenda, prompting his nemesis Turnbull to coin the phrase “Conrovian.” Of course, resuscitating the media agenda will now be the job for Conroy’s successor.
Just how fierce a head-kicker Rudd chooses to replace Conroy with will be instrumental in dictating just how much political capital Rudd assigns to the current NBN process. The NBN was a vote winner for Labor in 2010 and while its appeal may have diminished a touch since then it’s usefulness to Labor’s current aims cannot be discounted.
Consumers and businesses are awake to the potential of an all-fibre broadband. What they don’t appreciate is the manner in which the rollout has been handled. Conroy’s successor will not only have to counter the machinations of Turnbull, who is no doubt looking forward to the opportunity, but also stop the rot at NBN Co.
These are mighty challenges and will need an operator with the tenacity and the courage to make some hard decisions at NBN Co and convince the electorate that the Coalition’s NBN is a second-rate option with a first-rate price tag.
Conroy's departure leaves Rudd with a interesting decision to make. Replacing him with a wet-behind-the-ears Labor apparatchik will be a serious mistake, but then again Labor’s recent track record isn’t that great.