A funny thing happened on the way to media reform

I was about to write a blog about media reforms in Australia when a funny thing happened … a leadership spill.
Actually, it was the leadership spill you have when you’re not having a leadership spill. The most important element in a spill, which is essentially a vote to challenge a leader, is a challenger. There was none.
I held off writing about the media reform bills until I was sure they were lost, and that happened just after noon yesterday. What I didn’t realise was this was a trigger for the spill. An hour later, the Arts and Regional Affairs Minister, Simon Crean, called a press conference – his second of the day – calling for a vote and almost demanding that Kevin Rudd take on Julia Gillard for the leadership.
There were two problems: Crean hadn’t locked in Rudd as a candidate, and he wasn’t sure whether Rudd had the numbers. Another hour later, Julia Gillard went into Question Time, saying there would be a leadership ballot at 4.30pm, and looking directly at Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, said: “In the meantime, take your best shot.” (Photo above: Ray Strange, The Australian)
Abbott took his best shot, a no-confidence motion in the government, but he couldn’t get enough votes in Parliament to suspend standing orders – which would have allowed the motion to be debated and voted upon.
Ten minutes before the Caucus meeting, Kevin Rudd told media waiting in the corridor that he would not challenge for the leadership, citing his previous commitment at the last spill: “When I say to my parliamentary colleagues and to the people at large across Australia that I would not challenge for the Labor leadership, I believe in honouring my word. I said that the only circumstances under which I would consider a return to the leadership would be if there was an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party requesting such a return, drafting me to return, and the position was vacant. I am here to inform you that those circumstances do not exist.” In other words, he did not have the numbers. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan were re-elected unopposed.
All this was done in three and a half hours – the time it takes for a long lunch. But there were no celebrations, and only one winner, Tony Abbott. Simon Crean was sacked as minister, Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles resigned his post after he backed Rudd, and three other Rudd backers, chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon, and Labor MPs Ed Husic and Janelle Safin, have also quit their roles as whips. This morning, Tertiary Education Minister, Chris Bowen, resigned, saying he had been a Kevin Rudd supporter and he felt it was the right thing to do. Bowen was a former Immigration Minister, and I once said to him: “There must have been times when you wondered why you ever took this portfolio.” And he replied: “Tom, now you tell me.” He was very cooperative with the media, as were his staff, chief adviser, James Cullen, and press secretary, Bill Kyriakopoulos. He will be sorely missed by the Cabinet and the media, but he will get to see more of his young family.
UPDATE: Since I posted this blog a few hours ago, there have been two more resignations by senior ministers. Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Human Services Minister, Kim Carr, have quit after revealing that they had backed Kevin Rudd. And Mr Rudd has said he will not challenge for the leadership under any circumstances. Julia Gillard must have breathed a huge sigh of relief!
The leadership speculation about Kevin Rudd is over, since he didn’t have the numbers (and possibly the guts) to challenge, but the question mark over the Gillard government’s future is still there – until the polls improve.
Speaking of the government’s future, its handling of the media reform bills was said to be the main trigger for the leadership spill yesterday. Simon Crean criticised the process as did other Labor MPs. Only two of the six bills passed in Federal Parliament, and they were the least controversial. If handled correctly, the legislation could have gone much further.
The main problem with the bills was the man who had been trying to get them through Parliament: Stephen Conroy. The Minister for Communications should actually be called the Minister for Silly Talks and Miscommunications. The silliest of them all was this line in speech to an industry conference in New York last September: “If I say to everyone in this room, ‘If you want to bid next week in our spectrum auction, you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head. I have unfettered legal power.”
As Frank Sinatra might have said, if he knew Stephen Conroy: “If you can make yourself silly there, you can make yourself silly anywhere.”
The Shadow Minister of Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, summed up Conroy extremely well: “This is an extraordinarily incompetent minister, probably the most incompetent in this Government, and that’s a high bar of incompetence.”
When the Daily Telegraph compared the Minister to Stalin and five other despots on their front page, saying they all had something in common – trying to control the press – this was Malcolm Turnbull’s response: “The Daily Telegraph does not have the imagination to parody and caricature Stephen Conroy or make him look as foolish as he makes himself look foolish.”
And finally, Turnbull’s poisson de resistance in Parliament: “Senator Conroy, I put it to you, Madam Speaker, could not sell fresh fish to starving seals!”
Minister Conroy’s idea of selling the bills was appearing on various news and current affairs programs in the past few weeks, telling anecdotes like this one to ABC’s Insiders about evidence to the Finkelstein Inquiry: “And just finally, if I could, one more [bit of evidence], another head chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Dennis Pearce: ‘Indeed we had one period where The Australian newspaper did not like an adjudication we made and they withdrew from the council for a period of months’. And Mr Finkelstein asked: ‘Was that a direct consequence of the particular adjudication?’ And he said: ‘It was indeed. They said our adjudication was wrong and they were not going to publish it, and they didn’t’.” http://bit.ly/WzWgWh
This proved nothing as it did not spell out what the adjudication was, and whether The Australian was justified in their decision. And it implies that other publications were acting in the same way. Conroy also decided to sell the media reforms to Parliament by saying they had to vote on all six bills by yesterday, and they had to take them or leave them. Finally, the Prime Minister had to step in as her minister refused to negotiate on the bills or talk to the media bosses who came to Canberra to discuss them. Pass them by Friday, or they’re off the table, he said in his usual non-compromising way. The PM realised it wasn’t working, and said she’d accept sensible suggestions.
The most sensible came from MP Rob Oakeshott, one of those troublesome Independents, who said he would vote against the bills, but told Sky News AM Agenda, the bills should be put on hold until everyone, pollies, media, and the public had a proper opportunity to look at them. Labor MPs also agreed (privately, according to David Crowe of The Australian http://bit.ly/WXVzHw ) with Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilke, who said the bills were handled badly and more time should have been allotted for consideration.
Senator Conroy wasn’t willing to accept changes to the bills, especially the most controversial, proposing a Public Media Interest Advocate, appointed by the communication minister, with wide-ranging powers including the overseeing of standards applied to journalists by the Press Council and other self-regulatory bodies. Independent MP Bob Katter had proposed amendments that would have replaced the Advocate with a panel of 12 eminent citizens who would appoint three commissioners to oversee standards. Another sensible suggestion, but the PM could not sell the plan to the other Independents. Perhaps a communications minister with expertise in negotiations could have done so, but there wasn’t one available – on the Labor side of parliament, that is.
So the four bills were withdrawn – the two that passed dealt with a tv licence fee rebate, expansion of local content and rejection of a fourth commercial television network – the leadership spill went ahead, and Labor is not out of the woods, far from it. Media reform is off the table, and the tv network chiefs are saying in concert: “Common sense has prevailed.”
And, though the Prime Minister can never admit it, mainly because the bloke who nearly got her sacked is a leader of the Victorian Right and a key ally, the one person who should leave her Cabinet is Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Silly Talks and Miscommunications.
Simon Crean, Richard Marles and Chris Bowen have left the Cabinet, and they certainly brought more to their portfolios than Stephen Conroy.
The last word should go to Malcolm Turnbull, who asked the Prime Minister in Parliament this week whether she still had confidence in Stephen Conroy, given that … “(the) Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has presided over a $4.7 billion broadband tender that collapsed, a National Broadband Network that promised to pass 1.3 million premises by 30 June this year and is unlikely to reach even 15 per cent of that number, a compulsory internet filter that was abandoned, an Australia Network tender that was sabotaged and now a media regulation proposal that has crippled the government.”
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister said yes.

6 thoughts on “A funny thing happened on the way to media reform

  1. Great post and analysis, Tom.

    I am going to reserve my judgement on the leadership spill until the documentary comes out.

    Call me Machiavellian, but to me, there was a whole lot of “let’s call their bluff” about yesterday’s events. I can’t really believe that Crean was serious in his support for Rudd, (that’s why the press conference was a mess and he was all over the place). But he WAS willing to put his own position on the line to test the leakers and the destabilising forces in the caucus. And that’s why there was so little notice – it was put up or shut up, with no time to actively caucus votes. Whether this will be the end is another issue, although that is what seems to be in the soup today. Let’s see if it gets mixed in again, or rises to the top to be skimmed.

    • Thanks, Amanda. I look forward to the documentary. Back in the old days, the Sunday Program used to do documentary-length cover stories on events like this. But I agree with you that no one is sure if it is the end. In fact, I just logged back in to update the piece with two more resignations by senior ministers who backed Rudd. I fear more to come!

  2. Another excellent wrap of yesterday’s non-happenings Tommy. What a farce and Senator Conroy has to be front and centre of this whole shambles with absolutely stupid legislation.
    I cannot see why Sen. Conroy should not now resign his portfolio ..perhaps the PM will see the light and relieve him of his duties before that happens with a re-shuffle.
    Yesterday’s events had some excellent tweets as it rumbled along…one of the best I thought was Mark Burrows on Crean’s call for a spill:

    Mark Burrows ‏@MarkWBurrows

    Simon Crean jumped out of the trenches , ran like hell, turned around realised he was by himself without a gun. #nomansland


    • Thanks, Moshe. Yes, I was so busy watching the events unfold on TV, I didn’t have time to read all the tweets (though I did send a few myself!). I hadn’t seen Mark’s tweet, so thanks for sending it. And I think Conroy must have some confidential information on the PM that keeps him in the Cabinet, because if his position was based on merit, he would have been sacked a long time ago. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s