07 April 2010

Learned helplessness

THE federal opposition is yet to formulate a position on the proposed internet filter despite Labor flagging its intention to introduce the measure before the last election.

The failure of Coalition leader Tony Abbott or his communications spokesman Tony Smith to indicate whether they would support the bill reflects divisions within the party about the government's plan to block access to internet sites banned under Australia's classification rules.

The Greens are opposed to the filter, giving the Liberals the crucial votes in the Senate that determine the success of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's plan ...

Success criteria for shadow ministers are fairly nebulous. Even those that force a minister to resign enjoy a brief moment in the sun, but rarely do they translate this to any sort of reputation as a giant-killer. However, the criteria for failure is clear: failure to engage with the issues and stakeholders in your portfolio area, to the point where your leaders look ignorant and incompetent.

Tony Smith has been Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy for two years. He shadows the rebarbative and potentially highly vulnerable Stephen Conroy. Conroy is a political animal first and foremost and not necessarily that strong on detail. There are two ways of getting to someone like Conroy:

  • Trip him up on detail. Somewhere in that maelstrom of activity surrounding internet filtering, NBN, digital television and what have you, there is an "i" undotted and a "t" uncrossed. Find it, build a narrative of why it matters, and beat Conroy with it in every forum available.

  • Go for his strong suit: politics. Graham Richardson was brought down by a silly piece of influence-pulling, and surely Conroy is similarly vulnerable. He is a big cheese in the Victorian ALP, why has he escaped the opprobrium that has beset his comrades there?

Journalists tend to be leery about attacking the minister that regulates their employers. What they're reluctant to do is wound him: if you're going to go the Minister for Communications you want to pole-axe his political career, or at least make him chastened and unable to wreak career-ending havoc on you and your bosses. Shadow Ministers have the investigative resources that media outlets increasingly lack: do some digging, then hand it to a friendly journalist (not the hopeless Milney) and enjoy the fireworks, push forward to punch a hole in the Rudd and Brumby Governments that may not fully mend.

Tony Smith didn't get where he is today by upsetting the apple cart. Tony Smith ran errands for Peter Costello and eventually started writing press releases, and then won a safe seat in Victoria because everyone else on Costello's staff was getting these handed to them. By this time Tony had absorbed Costello's vocal and physical mannerisms to the point where it isn't clear what differentiation existed between Smith and his old boss. We at the Politically Homeless Institute came to refer to him in previous posts as Tony Smith Costello; the apple that didn't fall far from the tree and doesn't look like producing much fruit in his own right.

The difference is that Peter Costello was not afraid to be part of the great debates of his day, on industrial relations and related issues. Tony Smith is shirking the debates over our digital future, quibbling about cost while lacking any capacity to link cost to value.

The whole BCDE area is rich with information about where the government is going right, where it is going wrong. From the ratbaggiest website to the most considered and wide-ranging analysis, information on the background, current state and future directions on this area all freeely available in a way that it isn't with, say, health or defence issues. Yes, those issues are complex but they are only unfathomable if you have nothing better to do than sit back and smirk at it all.

Take, for example, this article. It praises Helen Coonan's work as Communications Minister and explains why she deserves that praise: ring her, Tony Smith, and ask for some tips. It shows how and why Conroy is vulnerable: follow those threads and you might start earning your pay, Tony Smith, in a way that you didn't with episodes like this.

Mind you, this is scarcely better. Transcripts from the MSM quoted verbatim (see Tony go one-on-one with Ron Wilson!). Transcripts quoted verbatim with no indications of the thought processes that led out Tone to such positions. Or this: no recognition for BCDE work done in Casey? No recognition for the impact a fast broadband network will have on Caseyans (yes, yes, but what if it generates so much new business that the $43b outlay is soon made up)? None at all?

The small-scale techie media is not as beholden to stale interests like the other mainstream media are. They are more likely to give your press releases a run and, if you show a bit of interest, help you navigate the complexities of this area. ICT is an important sector of the economy, and people who work in this area are a demographic that could, with a bit of careful cultivation, be an attractive source of votes for the Liberals going forward.

Even if you're not enamoured by all that policy wonkery about the digital economy, and if you can't be arsed building a political constituency, it is an unavoidable sign of political failure as a shadow minister that you haven't even examined the issues in your portfolio. In this piece, Smith's leader and treasury spokesman are clearly winging it, displaying a weak grasp of issues which are important to the nation, issues to which they did not turn to Tony Smith about, because why bother? If he had let Peter Costello down like that, he'd be so insignificant that he wouldn't even be history.

In the late 1980s there was a Liberal MP named Peter Shack, who was spoken of highly and who was also then in shadow cabinet, as shadow minister for health. In the leadup to the 1990 election he called a press conference to say that, well, there was no health policy. He couldn't get it to add up and the whole thing hadn't been thought through at all, terribly sorry. This is the point Tony Smith is at now, the point of abject failure. The internet filter should now be a thing of the past, dismantled on technical, moral and ethical grounds, with Conroy left without a skerrick of that Guardian Of Our Families nonsense that Tony Smith is too timid to take from him.

The Liberals have no policy in this area because they have no clue, and they have no clue because Tony Smith is too dumb and too lazy to do his job. Tony Smith followed all of the other sheep out of Turnbull's frontbench and was put straight back into the BCDE portfolio until he gets it right. He hasn't. He's failed, and has thus let down Abbott, Hockey and the whole Coalition.

The whole thrust of the Abbott campaign in this year's election is one of competence. The Liberals would have you believe that Labor are incompetent to run the government and the Liberals are competent to do so. Having Tony Smith on the frontbench is incompatible with a competency-based agenda.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. The fact that the opposition has been missing in action when it comes to this legislation has been a real worry to me. My fear is that they are keeping quiet because they support it.