An NBN rematch for Conroy?

The moment when the apparently dead mistress – memorably played by Glenn Close – bursts back to life from the bath tub and tries to stab her estranged lover in 'Fatal Attraction' shocked and terrified millions of cinema-goers all over the world.

The audience for last night’s edition of Richo on Sky News may have been smaller but their shock would have been just as great when the former communications minister Stephen Conroy announced that he was coming back from the political wilderness; and re-nominating for the party’s front bench.  

When Conroy bowed out of the ministry following the restoration of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, it seemed likely that after spending six years in the political trenches as the standard bearer for the National Broadband Network (NBN), Conroy would now be taking a backseat role.

Conroy has been at the epicentre of ALP federal politics for 15 years since joining the shadow front bench in 1998. Few could have blamed him for taking the easy option and letting others do the hard yards, but Conroy is raging furiously against the dying of the light.

Given his political power-base it is a certainty that Conroy will win that seat on the shadow front bench – the question is which one?

In his interview on Richo, Conroy attacked the plans of incoming Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to radically re-shape the NBN, setting the scene for a scenario where he and his NBN nemesis could possibly swap roles in the next parliament.

Some insiders say that Conroy might be looking for a more senior role on the opposition front bench but the mere possibility of a Turnbull-Conroy re-match in the next parliament makes the Ali-Frazier ‘Thriller in Manila’ epic re-match in 1975 look like a tiff between two grannies at the Murwillumbah RSL.

NBN "snakes and honey"

There is absolutely no love lost between Turnbull and Conroy with their relationship seeming to get increasingly bitter as the NBN project itself veered further off the rails – much to Turnbull’s delight and Conroy’s huge frustration.

Nobody on the Labor benches knows the NBN project like Conroy and – to use the words of one of his ex-staffers - nobody knows where the “snakes and honey” are on the project better than Conroy, so there is little doubt he would be formidable in the role.

However, the problem for Conroy is that there is a gentleman impatiently pacing the doorway of NBN Co HQ at 100 Arthur Street, North Sydney like an alcoholic hovering on the doors of the Kings Arms just before opening time – his name is Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

It would be under-statement of the century to say that Turnbull and his team are keen to get access to the books at NBN Co – not least the latest Corporate Plan that outgoing Communications Minister Anthony Albanese controversially refused to release before the election.

NBN Co was a huge part of the story of the outgoing Labor government and yet with the party’s defeat at last week’s election they have been forced to leave the company – whose staff includes ALP luminaries such as Mike Kaiser - on the battlefield completely at the mercy of its political enemies.

A dangerous legacy 

This is the obvious danger for Conroy if he returned to defend his legacy as shadow communications minister, the fact that his opponents are now in possession of the precious prize – NBN Co – and will be able to uncover even the most minor mistakes made by the company these last four years – and then pin them all right on his forehead.

Turnbull and his team will no doubt find enough material at NBN Co HQ to fill hundreds of pages of content in their post-election review of the project and it is very doubtful that Conroy will be getting called to the front of the class and given a gold star for his handiwork when the reviews are published.

So, even if Conroy wants to lace up the gloves and defend his legacy it might make a lot more sense for the ALP to gently persuade him that his talents would be better used elsewhere in the shadow ministry – although that will be no easy task if he really wants the role.

However, even if someone else did take the shadow communications portfolio – with the admirable Ed Husic seemingly a prime contender –Conroy is such a powerful figure in ALP ranks (especially now Kevin Rudd has been sidelined - for now at least) that his spectre will inevitably loom over their shoulder.

In the election campaign this was not a significant problem for Anthony Albanese because the goal was simply to back in the existing all-Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) model and repeat ad nauseam ‘Fraudband’ and ‘Mr Copper’ whenever engaging with Turnbull.

However, although the ALP will almost certainly maintain their all-FTTP model in the next parliament the shadow communications minister may eventually have to start making some compromises to the party’s rival NBN policy – but that won’t be easy to get past Conroy in shadow cabinet.

Judging by his complete and utter disdain for Kevin Rudd’s attempts to allow party members a vote in electing the federal leadership it seems that getting Conroy to change his mind on anything – let alone the NBN - is like trying to persuade Rev. Ian Paisley to take his summer holidays in Vatican City.

So, whether he takes the shadow communications minister role or something else Stephen Conroy is going to be playing some sort of role in the great NBN drama for a while yet – it takes more than a thumping election loss to kill this bloke off. 

Tony Brown is a senior analyst with Informa Telecoms & Media. He is a key member of the Broadband and Internet Intelligence Centre team, covering the broadband and Internet markets of the Asia Pacific region.