Stephen Conroy has been called a dalek, arrogant and a bully, but his achievements during his time as communications minister have also been lauded by some in the telco industry.
Conroy stepped down from his role as minister for the Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy portfolio on Wednesday night following Kevin Rudd's victory over Julia Gillard in a Labor leadership ballot.
Conroy was appointed to the shadow communications portfolio in 2004 and has at times found himself mired in controversy – from trying to pass a contentious Internet filter to the infamous red underpants comment, he has won both friends and foes in the industry.
The 50 year-old, who was born in England, spearheaded key digital initiatives during his tenure as minister.
The Digital Dividend, which auctioned off spectrum freed up in the 700MHz and 2.5GHz bands as a result of the switch to digital television, was expected to net the government a handy $3 billion+ in revenue. Expectations fell short when $1 billion worth of spectrum went unsold, with criticism of the high reserve price set by Conroy.
Conroy also led the controversial proposal for an Internet filtering scheme, which he doggedly pursued for five years before settling for a compromise that would see the government seek to block only the list of child abuse websites maintained by Interpol.
The crowning achievement of his time in cabinet was the structural separation of Telstra following years of wrangling between the telco and the government.
In 2008, Conroy issued a request for proposal for the National Broadband Network (NBN). In a show of defiance, Telstra submitted a 13-page non-compliant document, with the telco consequently banned from tendering for the NBN.
“Telstra’s board will have to explain to its shareholders why it has decided to sideline itself from a process that will shape the Australian communications sector for the next decade,” Conroy said.
“The government’s NBN process has always been bigger than Telstra.”
Eventually, Telstra signed an $11 billion agreement with the government-owned company NBN Co. As part of the agreement, the telco agreed to structural separation of its wholesale and retail arms.
“[Conroy’s biggest achievement is] the NBN and really breaking the back of Telstra. It’s probably [brought] Telstra into more conciliatory behaviour and [put] the industry in a position where it can move forward,” Chris Coughlan, independent telco analyst, told Computerworld Australia.
The regulatory framework had stalled under previous governments, Coughlan said. “I think now we have probably a framework and a culture that allows the industry to advance.”
The Competitive Carriers’ Coalition (CCC) has also lauded Conroy for his tough stance on Telstra.
The CCC said Conroy managed to find a solution to Telstra’s market dominance, which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had been unable to remedy.
“Senator Conroy addressed all of those issues with bold and imaginative solutions. Predictably, he faced enormous resistance from parts of the industry and the commentariat,” the CCC said in a statement.
“However, the fact that the fundamentals of his policy reforms have now gained bipartisan and broad industry support is the ultimate vindication of his efforts.”
While Coughlan said Conroy may have burnt some bridges along the way, the minister's hard-line attitude changed the industry’s culture.
“At the end of the day you can’t make everybody feel right about something,” Coughlan said.
“Probably you could call him arrogant but at the end of the day I think his performance as a minister and his passion to actually get things done is refreshing, given that you look at some of the previous ministers like [Richard] Alston and [Helen] Coonan and others. Really, there was little done to advance the industry.”
Conroy has not been without his detractors, however. The war of words between Conroy and Malcolm Turnbull has at times descended into schoolyard name calling.
The shadow communications minister has called Conroy a bully, a grub and accused him of pork barrelling. On the other side of the fence, Conroy has consistently blasted Turnbull for being a liar and misguided.
At the more extreme end, the late John Linton, former chief executive of ISP Exetel, dubbed Conroy ‘Stupid Stephen’ in his blog posts and labelled him a f***wit in one post.
Who will the next communications minister be?
Coughlan says whoever Conroy's successor will be, he or she may struggle with the portfolio, which has been described by former communications minister Kim Beazley as lacking “joy” – “it's just plain hard yakka.”
Coughlan doesn’t believe there is anyone in the current Labor party that would have the technical knowledge to lead the portfolio “because Conroy has been so dominant”.
“He’s been in the job for so long, so there’s really nobody within the Labor party I think that can quite step up," the analyst said.
“Conroy was rare in that he actually understood the technology. On the other side of the fence, Turnbull has a good understanding of technology, but I can’t see anybody in the current Labor party that has probably got the grasp that Conroy had on technology matters.”
Coughlan said the new communications minister is likely to struggle.
“If you look at some of the past ministers, they have struggled because you do need to have a good understanding of fundamental technology concepts and capabilities with different technology so people don’t baffle you with science that’s beyond your understanding,” he said.
Telco analyst Paul Budde has also said Conroy will be hard to replace.
“Obviously there is nobody in the ALP who is as knowledgeable about the NBN as Stephen Conroy and it will be interesting to see who takes over his position … the emphasis will now have to be on somebody with excellent communication skills to promote the benefits of the NBN to the voters,” he wrote in a blog post.
“There won’t be many ministers who will have as great a legacy to look back on as Stephen Conroy.”
Budde said it was sad to see Conroy leave his post as communications minister. Conroy's achievements have been “nothing less than remarkable”.
“I met Stephen Conroy for the first time in 2005 when he attended a conference I was addressing in Adelaide. He came to me after my presentation and indicated his interest and support for the concept of fast broadband for its social and economic benefits,” Budde wrote.
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