There are three things Communiations Minister Stephen Conroy is focused on right now: that enough of the NBN is rolled out to prevent an Abbott government 'ripping it up' in 2014; that Australia's media/journalism industry pulls its socks up; and that Kevin Rudd is not returned to the lodge.
On all counts he is on the brink of defeat, and the Gillard government along with him.
While that might evoke a degree of back-slapping congratulations in some quarters, confusing the fate of Senator Conroy with the fate of Australia is a mistake.
All three objectives make sense. And, apart from the Rudd issue, Conroy's obsessions should be electoral pluses, not millstones around Labor's neck. (Rudd's return would be an 'electoral plus', but virtually the end of the Labor Party, as I have written elsewhere – see, for instance, Will Rudd sacrifice Labor?, February 20)
We did need a monopoly-smashing game-changer in broadband, but it is happening too slowly – targets are being missed and NBN Co is having to take over some contractor work itself.
And we do need media reform, as Bob Katter made clear in his press conference yesterday. Katter reminded journalists that under one of Australia's most corrupt political regimes – the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland – a couple of key journalists resisted the pressure of corruption within their own media companies to do what every good journalist must: tell the truth. Katter credits those journalists with saving his life, while he says others politicians who spoke up were murdered or hounded into suicide.
All of which makes Conroy's approach to media reform almost unfathomable. When he stood in the prime minister's briefing room last week to tell journalists that there would be no "bartering" on his reforms, and that they must be passed by the end of this week (unless an extra sitting day is called, which means by tonight), he was virtually setting himself up to fail.
The Public Interest Media Advocate idea has been slammed by Katter and Andrew Wilkie. Rob Oakeshott said early on that he wouldn't support the four bills that, at this point in time, look headed for the rubbish bin of history. And even the Greens, who want more than anyone to silence some of the unbalanced reporting of carbon-pricing that Australian voters have been subjected to in the past two years, sought substantial changes before signing up to the Conroy plan.
If there was a deeper strategy behind the 'crash or crash-through' approach to this issue, what the hell was it?
If it was to distract attention from the Gillard/Rudd leadership story, it failed at the outset. Almost immediately a hostile media linked the two – 'if this fails, Gillard fails!' was the basic logic.
If it was to put an extreme package forward, in the hope of passing something milder after a bit of 'bartering', then that also seems to have failed.
Or was Conroy always sure the package would be rejected – something to beat the Coalition with closer to the election? "We tried to get some balance into Australian media," he might have planned to tell the ABC (because no commercial media owner would run it), "but today's front pages not only explain why we failed, but why you must re-elect Labor to get this issue sorted out!"
Okay, that's a pretty wild theory. But whatever Conroy's reasoning when he made the announcement, the whole exercise has been a giant net loss for Labor. If it's a gain for anyone, it's for Kevin Rudd.
Miracles do happen. It's still possible that by day's end some variation of the Katter plan for media regulation is agreed to and passed. Katter wants a panel of eminent Australians and journalists to vote for a three-person commission to oversee media ownership and, importantly, to protect individual journalists from intimidation – including from their own employers.
The odds of that are extremely long, to say the least.
Conroy is right to claim that he has had very bad press in the past three years. He is a huge threat to vested interest interests in media markets, and as such deserved more support from journalists who ultimately, it must be remembered, are here to serve their audiences' interests – not their bosses'. Kerry Stokes' line at a Senate inquiry last week that his shareholders' interests and the public interest were one and the same was breathtaking in its audacity.
This columnist has written many articles in support of the NBN, against the destructive influence of Kevin Rudd on his own party and, by extension, on Australia (see above), and finally on the need for media reform.
But good ideas still require good execution to become reality. The only execution Conroy seems to have arranged in the past week, barring a miracle, is that of his own government.