Opinion: What makes a good Communications Minister?

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Opinion: What makes a good Communications Minister?

Senator Kate Lundy in the spotlight.

Question: How could a Communications Minister promising $43 billion of investment in his industry and the break-up of a monopolistic incumbent become the subject of so much ridicule?

Answer: The internet filter - a single, broken spoke jammed in the wheel of the Rudd Government's wider cyber security policy.

The filter plan has made Senator Stephen Conroy's job impossibly difficult. The volume of protest around the filter issue would suggest Conroy is among the least popular communications ministers in Australian political history, even if he scores well on other policies. 

Technology bloggers deride him, he is mocked in circulars sent around to the entire staff of IT companies - even the foreign press have lampooned his filter plan from further afield.

The filter seems to colour Conroy's every word.

In late May, he was handed a smoking gun against his ideological opponents, in the unlikely shape of Google's Wi-Fi privacy breach.

But the opportunity was wasted -- as soon as Conroy brought it up in Parliament, it was assumed that his rant was simply payback for Google's criticism of his filter plan.

It appears Conroy hadn't learned from a gaffe made earlier in his tenure, in which he passed comment on iiNet's defence against AFACT well before the case was heard by a judge.

In the wings

In the wings, Senator Conroy's ALP colleague Kate Lundy has watched and - for the most part - held her tongue. A backbencher with intimate links to the technology industry, Lundy has maintained her gaze on crystal-ball topics such as eGovernment to maintain a constructive influence on the sector.

But in the last 48 hours, Lundy has risen to the occasion as the popularity of her peers sag.

Using her blog, she has suggested not one but two alternatives to Senator Conroy's filter, and also expressed some alarm as to whether Australians will be afforded the right protections should her colleagues sign the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Today, she was blogging live in The Australian about eGovernment.

There has always been a sense in the technology sector that Lundy should have been the Communications Minister in the first place.

Arguably, it was Stephen Conroy's sharp political skills (and factional ties) that placed him ahead of Lundy for the portfolio, despite her experience as Shadow Communications Minister.

Now, with the filter policy delayed and Conroy taking flak, would she make a viable alternative?

Lundy's detractors suggest that unlike Conroy, she is too much a fence-sitter to be a Minister - "dishwater weak" were the words used by pundits on Twitter today.

Some have asked whether she would cross the floor if she felt strongly enough on a given issue, but her opponents would need to actually come up with a stance worth crossing for.

If there is a flakiness about Lundy, it is borne of her even-handedness and gravitation to compromise -- admirable qualities in a person, but not always constructive as a Minister.

For her part, Lundy has never complained publicly (or privately to journalists, to my knowledge) about her position on the backbench.

It may require a change in the party's leadership - or Conroy's resignation - to elevate her to lead the portfolio.

But as support for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wanes, political commentators have raised the prospect of Deputy PM Julia Gillard being an easier sell against Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott in the forthcoming election.

Could the same strategy apply in the IT sector?  Would the best means of fighting off an opposition devoid of a clearly expressed communications strategy (beyond Abbott's plan to scrap the NBN) be to promote a Senator with demonstrated knowledge of the issues at hand?

What do you think?

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