Senator Conroy, a strong Gillard supporter, has confirmed via Twitter his resignation as Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. "Can confirm Conroy has resigned. Keep supporting Labor & the #NBN, most important infrastructure in our country's history," read Conroy’s tweet (@ConroyMO).
The big question is who will replace him. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has a big job filling the vacancies left by the departure of one third of the Cabinet. The most important post, that of Treasurer, will most likely go to Rudd supporter Chris Bowen, but there is no clear indication of who will get Conroy’s job.
Prime Minister Rudd has said that there will be no revenge and no recriminations, and it remains a possibility that he will ask Conroy to withdraw his resignation. Whether Conroy would agree is another question. He no great fan of Rudd’s, but the NBN is his baby and he might want to see it through, particularly if there is a chance of Labor being re-elected.
Who might replace Conroy? The name most often mentioned is that of Kate Lundy, a popular senator from the ACT, who was the ALP’s Shadow IT Minister during the last years of the Howard Government. She was not given the portfolio when Labor won government under Kevin Rudd in 2007, and is currently Minister for Sport and Multicultural Affairs.
Although she is a strong supporter of Julia Gillard, she has not resigned her position. She walked into the fateful caucus ballot last night next to Gillard. She is in the outer ministry, not the Cabinet, and is regarded by some as not senior enough for the position, nor tough enough for what it requires. But she has often been underestimated. She was elected to the Senate at age 29 in 1996. That means she has been in parliament longer than both Gillard and Rudd, who were both elected in 1998.
The wild card is Simon Crean, currently on the back benches after pushing Rudd forward in the abortive non-coup in March. He is the most senior man in the party, and a former leader. He will certainly be in a Rudd Cabinet - if he were given responsibility for the NBN it would be a master stroke.
Other possible candidates are new Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who is already Minister for Infrastructure, and for Regional Development. One possibility is that the NBN will be placed into his department and moved from the existing DBCDE (which would presumably become DCDE). But Albanese will have his hands full as Rudd’s deputy.
Gary Gray, like Conroy a Labor apparatchik and currently Minister for Resources and Energy (Martin Ferguson’s old job) could handle it. So could Penny Wong, who has replaced Conroy as Leader of the Government in the Senate.
Then we start running out of names. The NBN remains popular in the wider community. It is a key part of Labor’s platform, and an important differentiator when compared to the Coalition’s more limited version. The second Rudd Government will want someone senior in the role, and someone how can sell its benefits well.
It will be one of Kevin Rudd’s most important ministerial appointments.