14 May 2011


Communication always leaves me incomplete
The grass is greener, but it's grown beneath my feet
Love inspiration is a message on a wing
But I have left it in the words you'll never sing

Senator Stephen Conroy is, among other things, the Minister for Communication. One of the projects for which he's responsible is the shutdown of analog television, opening a digital transmission spectrum, and having both broadcasters and viewers shift from analogue to digital.

There are arguments for giving people set-top boxes:

  • The government has arbitrarily devalued people's analog-TV assets;

  • The boxes don't limit what sort of television set people can have;

  • There is a little light on the box that winks at you, and the sorts of dills who worked for the NSW ALP government think it will remind people to vote Labor;

By "people", I refer to the sorts of people for whom a television set is a significant asset, the sorts of people who regard a television set as a major conduit to the world. Some will have made their own arrangements regarding a digital television, while still others need not have a taxpayer-funded set-top box (not even if they earn a paltry $150k). Still, it's a nice thought.

It should be more than a nice thought, though. It should be an actual policy, fully costed and explained in more detailed terms than the dot-points above. It should exclude those who are perfectly capable of buying their own televisions. It should be opt-in rather than opt-out or no-opt, with information available for people who don't speak a lot of English or keep up with latest developments in public policy.
Communication let me down
But I'm left here
Communication let me down
But I'm left here, I'm left here

There should have been a blitz before the Budget explaining the digital switchover, and the compensation for people facing disenfranchisement from a key element of the public sphere. Conroy was the man to do such a thing: for someone brought up politically in the back alleys of Victorian ALP (not the funky, grafitti-covered alleyways of contemporary Melbourne, but those dark with something more than night in which person-to-person interaction is limited to a blade in the ribs), he has proven surprisingly deft in making a case and getting his message through.

The NBN remains a triumph, regardless of the odd little campaign by The Australian about who said what to whom at Alcatel in the '90s (surely no worse than the sort of stuff that goes on in News Ltd's Western European branch offices). Turnbull has dented that juggernaut but not completely defused it, and he has not allayed the suspicion that he'd tweak it a bit, get rid of Mike Kaiser and basically rebadge it as Liberal nation-building, similar to Menzies' opening of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Mike Kaiser: there's someone who's been heavily invested in by Labor for a relatively low yield. This is his time to step up, take some flak on the minister's behalf so that he can get on with issues like the digital switchover, or Victorian ALP preselections, or whatever.

Conroy may well have been spooked by Turnbull, but the more accurate answer is probably that he no longer cares. He has, as Neville Wran put it, been up to his eyeballs in blood and shit for so long that he'd rather go snowboarding in Vail with Kerry Stokes than go around foisting set-top boxes on unsuspecting punters.
Telex or tell me, but it's always second-hand
I'm incognito but no rendezvous's been planned
Dictate or relay, I could send it to your home
"Return to Sender" - I could sing it down the phone!

At the very time when the government could do with a tough and uncompromising presence in getting its message across, Conroy has botched what should have been a popular idea: ameliorating rapid technological change with social equity, part of Labor's historic mission etc. He's done it by neglect rather than any obvious or deliberate spite.

Conroy should have explained why set-top boxes are part of bringing everyone along into the twentyfirst century. Installing a set-top box is something so simple he could do it himself, with cameras rolling natch, into some poor old person's home in a marginal seat. A cup of tea, a dig at the Liberals, and it could've made for a substantial set-piece announcement; instead, it's slightly weird policy at best and an expensive boondoggle at worst, indefensible by anyone not fully across what passes for media policy in this country.

If Conroy is fed up, he should just go. If he's got any fight in him, he should fight for people staying in touch with the world around them when their options might be otherwise limited. Allowing Gerry Harvey to rag him over the cost of set-top boxes would have got the goat of old-school Labor, and even stirred up Conroy more than it apparently has. Should Conroy be moved to another portfolio? Does he need a fresh parly sec who can make their name by pushing such a barrow (and who, pray tell, are the bright sparks on Labor's back bench, as opposed to all those dull-eyed hacks just waiting their turn?)?
Communication let me down
But I'm left here
Communication let me down
But I'm left here, I'm left here, I, I, I ...

The digital switchover will look good in retrospect - a bit like the switch to metric measurements, which was similarly mishandled by the McMahon and Whitlam governments. Mishandling a key social equity facet of technological change and assuming that all such changes are going to be bungled is not what this country needs.

The Liberals cannot put up a convincing case that they will handle things better - or even that they understand technological change issues. Lumping it in with "waste" won't do, it shows the Liberals don't understand media or social dimensions of technological change. Conroy can't count on the Liberals continuing to fudge these issues, and to his credit he hasn't until recently.
I'm sitting here by the telephone,
Waiting for the bell to ring
Short change, fumble
Dial-a-heart trouble
And I ain't got time for searching through the rubble, oh no!
Well, I know ...

- Spandau Ballet Communication

The return of George Megalogenis to the national conversation was never more welcome than with this - read the whole article, but I particularly liked:
The Abbott formula is a form of 21st-century Fraserism. Shout your way to power, then do nothing with it because the only thing wrong with Australia, really, was the election of a Labor government.

On the issue of digital communications and the right party to manage the twentyfirst century in all its complexity, surely someone from the government can step up and make the case. This government is led by two backroom operators, and one of them will probably have to go by Christmas. What's Conroy's excuse?


  1. "It should be opt-in rather than opt-out or no-opt, with information available for people who don't speak a lot of English or keep up with latest developments in public policy."

    It has been explained perfectly well to all those who are eligible via numerous Centrelink letters and they can choose whether to take up the offer or not if they fit certain criteria.
    Such as they have no other means of watching tv other than their existing old television.

    This is not new and has been rolled out in Mildura and country Victoria with no problems and was definitely "opt in".

  2. Anonymous, if that's true then it's doubly damning of the government that they've bungled the communication of this policy.

  3. I'm with Sean - just because "it has been explained" doesn't mean the message has gotten through and has not been distorted by other factors at the receivers' end. With all due respect to Mildura and country Victoria, there appears to be no Old Poor People's Bush Telegraph which has put all concerns to rest.

    Are the criteria the most appropriate? Is there anything that should be done differently elsewhere?

  4. When it comes to mass communication the government only has two choices, using the the forth estate or advertising. As the forth estate seems to have gone into a serious funk where the reportage of anything more serious that the colour of hair, handbag style or the ability to ride a bike doesn't get reported I find it difficult to see how Conroy is at fault.

    We do have a public broadcaster that is supposed to deal with this issue. Where are they, why are they serving up nothing but trivia.

    I'm fed up with hearing from the ABC the statement "The opposition said" in the name of balance; I want to hear what the government is doing; that settop boxes are opt in, that you only need them if you want to keep your analog tv and so on.

    Basically, where the media is currently at is bullshit, and the ABC is part of it, there is no other way to describe it.

  5. Government has the choice to do labour-intensive visits to communities, which the media can follow or not follow as they choose. Conroy was effective in getting the NBN up, he could have done something similar with the set-top boxes.

    The rest, I agree several million percent. The media focus on bullshit, their ratings go down, then they blame everyone but themselves.

  6. Thanks for the link to the George Megalogenis article, it's fantastic. The mining industry is doing as much harm as good (labour costs and scarcity, high dollar etc), heaven help us should commodity prices suffer a sizeable fall or China should pull on the brakes.

    We have significant structural weakness in our economy and most people are oblivious to them because there's no national debate about it. To make any negative remark about mining will have you tarred and feathered by both sides of politics. A couple of economic writers have come out and said that it wouldn't be a bad thing to throttle mining output, but it's heresy in the new political orthodoxy.

  7. I think there's a case to be made for saying that the media has behaved mendaciously when reporting this government's actions. The most noteworthy example would be the hysterical criticism of the school stimulus program compared with its actual outcomes. But it doesn't follow that, there's a concerted agenda by some sections of the fourth estate to portray the government in a bad light at all costs, which is the sort of allegation you see regularly on the Larvatus Prodeo comment threads and other places. Political journalists in this country have been deadshits for at least as long as I've been reading the paper, for all that time all but the very best of them have carped endlessly over ephemera and let the real scandals go unnoticed or unindicted. Previous governments have transcended this or somehow made it work to their advantage. The incumbents have to take their fair share of the blame.

    Anonymous, you're wrong to say that governments have to rely on advertising or the fourth estate to gain consent on the governed. I don't presume to be an expert on social media but it's obvious even to my untrained eye that the government's strategy for interacting with people over the internet is appalling. What Andrew says above about Conroy needing to barnstorm the public about this program like he did with the NBN sounds antediluvian but all that tripping over TV cables at shopping centres sort of shit's important too. Since Gillard got up, the Government's scaled back on community cabinet meetings, and since the election the only community appearances by frontbench MPs have been at picfacs in front of windfarms or hard hat and hi res walks through trades training schools. Ministers have sent public servants to get heckled at community meetings in Griffith or Inverbrackie because they haven't had the cajones for a bad photo op. This sort of stuff is difficult, soul-destroying and exhausting, and it can only necessarily reach a small segment of the population at the time, but it's still vitally important in consolidating public support; the fact that the government has failed in these areas show the wider systemic problems with the government's communication strategy.

  8. Sean and Andrew the roll out to digital is over a long period and the advertising to those on benefits who are eligible is targeted directly by more than one mail out at a time appropriate to the changeover in their area.

    If you look below you will see how the very limited and clear eligibility is determined. As I said before I have seen this thing first hand in my area and there have been no bugs or complaints.

    You both seem to be suggesting that a major advertising campaign should be conducted for political purposes to hold off the spin that has just begun by some malicious media manipulators.

    It has been treated as an in-house centrelink program, which in my opinion, it should be. And it definitely "opt in" under penalty of making a false declaration if you do not fit quite strict criteria. I actually think the take up around the country will be quite small given that factor.


  9. Who are the Labor party media managers? How any of them been moved to "other duties"? Why are they still mucking it up?
    Maybe Howard's Way of spending as little as possible with a tax break for the wealthy might be worth another go.

  10. "... the roll out to digital is over a long period and the advertising to those on benefits who are eligible is targeted directly by more than one mail out at a time appropriate to the changeover in their area."

    Anonymous, I don't doubt that you are doing what you can. I am saying that the minister should do more than he has.

    "You both seem to be suggesting that a major advertising campaign should be conducted for political purposes to hold off the spin that has just begun by some malicious media manipulators."

    I'm not saying that - I doubt Sean is, but he can speak for himself. I agree with Drag0nista when she says that ad campaigns are the last resort of failed lobbyists. I'm saying the minister should get off his backside and start promoting this as being a good policy well executed, and say nothing else until even journos wake up to it.

    Which department does it is a matter that doesn't concern me. Thanks for the link - and your contributions.

    Notus: I'm with you on the self-overestimating press monkeys!

  11. No, I'm not saying that either. I lived under the Bracks and Brumby Governments for five years, I think my head would explode Cronenberg-style if I was exposed to any more Labor taxpayer-funded advertising. At least the Liberal ones have catchy jingles.