He will pose and strut and stick his chest out, but when Communications Minister Stephen Conroy tries to gag Australia’s press, as he plans to do as a matter of urgency, it will be worth remembering what this stain on a Senate bench really stands for. Sure, he will claim it is all about protecting diversity of opinion, or to shield children from unpleasantness, or perhaps, in a nod to fashion, to protect female Labor politicians from sexist abuse.
But make no mistake, it is about power pure and simple. H.L. Mencken once noted that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one, but if Conroy gets his way the liberty to write and publish, to broadcast and blog, will be furthered filtered by government fiat. A “fitness test” is needed, he says, before media outfits can be bought or sold, simultaneously making re-assuring noises about how an “independent” arbiter will decide who is fit to put that ink on paper or text on screen.
Independent like Tim Flannery of the Climate Commission?
Independent like Mark Scott of their ABC?
We all know we can expect more of the same from this desperate and dying government, determined if it cannot save itself to sow the dragon’s teeth of stay-behind functionaries in the public service and Australia’s apparatus of regulation.
That is one explanation for Conroy’s indecent haste.
Another is that the urgency of Conroy’s apparent bid to turn his will into law within two weeks is no more than a gambit designed to fail. Rejected in Canberra, Gillard (or her replacement) could then thunder from the stump about the conspiracy of media barons to paint her crew of Sideshow Bobs as victims of bias and abusive reporting. This, mind you, would come from the woman whose hectoring of senior editorial executives succeeded in seeing two journalists sacked for daring to report how she never quite seemed to notice her former pillow-mate was a crook. With any other government such an idea would stretch belief, but with this assembly of overgrown campus politicians, well, you just never know.
Regardless of his short-term tactics, we know exactly what Conroy is all about. His spore has left a stinking trail that stretches back to the days of Rudd. Just as reminder, and to help put his bellicose posturing in perspective over the next two weeks, what follows is a review of a recent life in politics:
[Conroy’s] power comes from offstage, from the patronage of his mentor, Senator Robert Ray, and his years as a recruiter (his enemies call it branch-stacking), deal-maker and kneecapper for the Victorian Right. His reward was Senate preselection at the age of 31. Once in the Senate, Conroy could start knifing people under the protection of parliamentary privilege. He did not waste any time.
On September 12, 1996, barely four months after arriving in the Senate, Conroy used privilege to target a dissident faction in the NSW postal workers’ union which had mounted a successful court challenge to an election victory by the Labor Right faction. War ensued. Smear-sheets – usually defamatory, always anonymous – were distributed by the thousands, attacking the reputations of opponents.
In the Senate, Conroy joined in, accusing the two men who had exposed the election corruption, Noel Battese and Quentin Cook, of being responsible for the fraud: "Justice Moore has exposed that supporters of the Cook-Battese team were involved in electoral fraud … A member of the Cook-Battese team has pointed directly at who is responsible … One of his own has given him up."
Ugly. The judge had found precisely the opposite. Conroy had made his speech on the eve of the new union election. Within 24 hours, thousands of copies of his speech – in the authoritative format of Hansard – were distributed around mail centres under the heading, "The Cheat Team".
Battese challenged Conroy to repeat his remarks outside Parliament.
I faxed a dozen questions to Conroy about his speech.
When I first encountered him on May 20, 1997, he was occupied at a urinal in a men’s toilet. As I walked in, he finished his business and walked out. He did not pause. He did not wash his hands. He went straight back to the committee room.
You do not forget such images.
Censoring the Internet:
Grasp of technical detail:
Failure to deliver