Conroy's Crash Through Tactics


This is the last week the federal Parliament will sit until the May budget. In the compressed timetable of the Australian legislature, that means that there are actually very few weeks of law-making left before parliamentarians adjourn to begin their election campaigns.

It seems superfluous to write it, but on current polling, Labor is facing a landslide defeat. Unless it can somehow convince the large rump of the electorate that has turned against it to reconsider, the Government will be soundly trounced in September. 

And that has started to make Labor backbenchers and powerbrokers nervous. With the Government seemingly permanently mired in election-losing territory in opinion polls, time is running out for Labor to pull a rabbit out of its hat. If indeed it has one.

As we've remarked here often, Labor has not been assisted by the overwhelmingly negative attitude of much of the mainstream media. The News Limited newspapers in particular are furious with the Government over Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's proposed media regulations. Much has already been written about the absurd over-reaction of the News Limited stable against Conroy's exceedingly modest proposals. From a policy point of view, the overt slant with of News’ reporting of the issue merely confirms the need for tougher regulation of an industry which appears incapable of reporting accurately on itself.

But politically, the media reforms are a big headache for a government which desperately needs any and all help it can get. Instead, it has picked a fight with a powerful interest group with the motive and means to hurt it.

Conroy's reforms are so weak that one theory is that he thought they would slide under the radar of the big media combines, which under the new proposals will experience only the lightest of regulatory oversight. If so, it was a spectacular misjudgment.

Whatever you think of the merits of Conroy's scheme – and there is actually much to praise in the principle of public interest finally being inserted into Australia media law – the way he has gone about presenting and negotiating it has left a lot to be desired. This is important legislation that deserves proper debate in Parliament — which a very short deadline makes difficult. Worse, Conroy's take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the independent members on the cross-benches was never viable in a minority Parliament; negotiations were always going to be necessary, which simply made Conroy's bluster look foolish.

It's typical Conroy: bold, but risky. The risk-averse strategy would have been to shelve all media reform altogether. But more than most of his cabinet colleagues, Conroy prefers charging ahead rather than sitting back. In the National Broadband Network, he has driven one of Labor's most substantive achievements in government (or one its biggest boondoggles, depending on your position on the merits of the NBN). One senses that doing nothing was not an option. But by failing to line up the numbers before launching into battle, Conroy has brought a knife to a gunfight.

There was a better way. Conroy could have adopted most of the Finkelstein Review's recommendations, and used the substance of that admirably independent inquiry as cover for the Government's response. He could then have opened up negotiations with the independents earlier, using the  input of the cross-benchers to help usher the reforms through the Parliament. After all, the experiences of Craig Thomson leave him uniquely qualified to discuss the need for curbs on media invasions of privacy.

A longer public debate might even be in the Government's interest, as big media corporations are by no means particularly popular in and of themselves. Instead, Conroy has tried to crash through. Such is his impetuosity that some are even suggesting it's all a ploy to distract attention from a looming leadership challenge against Julia Gillard.

If so, it hasn't worked. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine anything that would distract certain press gallery journalists from endlessly recycling leadership rumours, particularly Fairfax's Peter Hartcher. Another factor driving the speculation is the parliamentary timetable, which supposedly makes this week the last week in which a leadership change could occur and still allow a new leader (presumably Kevin Rudd) to craft his own budget.

How much credence should we place in these reports? Who knows? It's tempting to simply ignore them as just more sound and fury, except that we do know that there's considerable agitation inside the Labor caucus. The Prime Minister's immediate fate, as ever for a Labor leader, remains in the hands of her key factional supporters, particularly the New South Wales Right faction and the so-called “ShortCon” faction of Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy. If Shorten were to move against Gillard, most assume this would mean the end. But there is no compelling reason for him to do so, given that he would be unlikely to win the September election. Nor is there any good evidence that a reborn Kevin Rudd would be able to lead Labor to a third term. Perhaps this is why rumours swept Twitter last night of a Simon Crean leadership bid, with the Minister for Arts and Regional Development acting as a “safe pair of hands” to shepherd the Government to the election.

The very idea that Simon Crean could be considered a viable third candidate shows the febrile atmosphere enveloping the government this week. It also demonstrates the difficulty Labor faces in drawing the debate back to policy, as Bob Carr has been pleading from Washington. Just as the media is incapable of letting the leadership story go, so too is Labor incapable of stopping the torrent of leaks to press gallery journalists, let alone uniting behind its current leader. Locked in an unsavoury embrace with the media, the government is in a purgatory of its own making.

In truth, I have no idea what's going to happen, and no-one in the press gallery does either. Our political media would be better served if journalists spent more effort reporting policy and legislation, and refrained from writing articles they can't verify, using sources they won't name.

There is a connection be made between the media's over-reaction on self-regulation and its fevered reporting on the shadow boxing over the leadership. Both examples show that journalists and editors are failing their audiences. The former reinforces the point that the media can't be trusted to report on itself. The latter again highlights the deficit of trust between ordinary citizens and press gallery journalists. Taken together, we're missing the bigger debate, about the merits and safeguards of the news media in a modern democracy. There is much to be gained by a sober and informed discussion of the role of the media in our society. We're losing that opportunity.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.