Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Deputy Leader in the Senate
Born in: Ely, UK
Home Town: Melbourne
The stereotype of Stephen Conroy is by now well defined: the apparatchik's apparatchik. But this factional Dalek has unexpectedly become one of the government's most important policy figures, having driven its biggest reform agenda by implementing a communications revolution around the NBN and the structural separation of Telstra. Not to mention minor matters like analog TV switchoff.
This apparent transformation is more understandable if you take some time to watch Conroy at Senate Estimates. Most ministers attend as if at gunpoint, bored and annoyed by having to spend long days listening to, ignoring and occasionally answering, lines of questioning from their senatorial colleagues. But Conroy appears to, if not enjoy it, then use it as an opportunity to stir up his political opponents. He seems to love nothing more than baiting, taunting, stonewalling and making jokes at the expense of Coalition and Greens senators.
It's not just in his own portfolio – he was shadow minister for communications for the last Howard term, and then switched to the other side of the witness table on becoming Minister for Broadband, inheriting the very bureaucrats he'd been interrogating for three years – but across all the portfolios he finds himself stuck in during the Estimates cycle.
Conroy enjoys conflict, not for the sake of it, but for the opportunity to spar, test ideas and argue his case. Having handled communications issues for most of the last decade, he is formidably across the technical details of his portfolio, and is happy to range more widely. Plenty of Labor MPs moan about News Limited's coverage of politics, for example, but Conroy decided to do something about it, calling the company out on its "régime change" campaign and discrediting its often malicious reporting of the NBN.
His enjoyment of conflict is fortunate, because he's spent much of his political career engaged in it, usually with other members of his party. And he helped the Right seize control of the ALP in Canberra.
Conroy hasn't broken with the great tradition of Australian media policy – that it is run for the benefit of the incumbents. For example, it was Conroy that handed the commercial television networks a $250m windfall in licence fee rebates prior to the 2010 election.
But Conroy has fundamentally changed communications in Australia. He's done it through the NBN – the bold version of the more conservative broadband policy Labor took to the 2007 election – and through taking on Telstra and winning (something some of his predecessors longed to do). He's also done it by having substantially overhauled Australian broadcasting's biggest rort, the anti-siphoning scheme, in a way that delivered real benefits to viewers while not alienating either the free-to-air networks or the subscription TV sector. To that end, it helped that Conroy himself is a sports nut who can talk at length on the quality and quantity of sports coverage on TV.
He's also set in train the process for shaping the post-analog media environment via the Convergence Review. A serious response to the review would dominate the rest of the year and likely the rest of the parliamentary term for Conroy. Efforts to overhaul media regulation are usually major political and policy challenges, and this one won't be confined to broadcasting, but cover the entire communications regulatory environment.
How Conroy would function in another, calmer, status quo portfolio isn't clear, but his pugilistic style is well suited to communications, where even a minister resistant to change is confronted constantly with the implications of rapidly-changing technology and some of the most powerful companies and individuals in the country, and the world.
Conroy grew up in the ACT after his family moved to Australia from the UK in the early 70s and earned his degree at the ANU. Later joining Robert Ray in Melbourne, he had a stint on Footscray Council and drove the turnover of talent in the Victorian ALP after the Cain-Kirner years. He did the same at a federal level in the mid-2000s, including the notorious attempt to unseat Simon Crean.
Along the way he's developed plenty of enemies as well as a brutal reputation, particularly after Mark Latham singled him (and, to a lesser extent Kim Beazley) out in his diaries for the treatment of MP Greg Wilton, who took his own life in 2000. Conroy's response was to suggest Latham's diaries belonged in the fiction section of the library.
Conroy labours with the reputation of being, if not a fundamentalist Catholic (which some charge), then someone of strong moral beliefs. One of the stories that frequently circulated about Labor's internet filter policy was that it was part of a deal stitched up between the strongly-religious Kevin Rudd and the Australian Christian Lobby. The subsequent fall of Kevin Rudd has afforded Conroy, reputedly not the biggest fan of his erstwhile Prime Minister, plenty of opportunity to disavow the policy, which was placed on hold before the 2010 election pending a review of the Refused Classification category of the classification system.
In an odd way it's to Conroy's credit that he has never taken the opportunity to offload responsibility for the filter onto Rudd, but maintained his support for it despite the often savage vituperation the filter has brought him personally from key sections of his portfolio.
Conroy is one of Labor's most effective ministers because he has what most of the government lacks – an enthusiasm for aggressively putting his case and a passion for argument. He's by no means the government's most articulate speaker, but he enjoys the battle of ideas as much as factional warfare. For all the claims of "factional Dalek", in a party where more and more wonder what its core values are, Labor could do with a little more of Conroy's forthright style.