OPINION: Calling Conroy an idiot won't stop the filter

Opponents of Australia's proposed Internet filter will get nowhere with personal attacks on Stephen Conroy, writes Richard Chirgwin.

Conroy the lightning rod for the Internet filter

If you wonder why opposition to the Internet filter in Australia seems to be gaining so little real political traction, I have two words: “lightning rod”.

That’s the strategy Senator Stephen Conroy is pursuing, and it’s working perfectly.

It’s like this: Internet filtering is not a single debate. It’s at least four debates.

There’s the technical factual debate – whether the filter will function, its impact on Internet users, whether it will achieve its stated purpose.

There’s the philosophical debate – the role of censorship in a democracy (personally I’m against censorship as a corrosive and corrupting influence, but that’s not the topic of this article).

There’s the political debate – the degree of difference between the government’s position and the opposition’s position, which only really matters in the context either of a blocked Senate vote, or a federal election.

Supporters of the Internet filter need no convincing on any of these points. They’ve decided that filtering is necessary, they are happy to believe that it will work as described, and are satisfied that the government’s mind is made up.

But from the point of view of a public campaign, opponents to the filter face a complex problem. They have to work all three patches. They have to convince the unconvinced that the filter won’t work and they have to convince the unconvinced of the evils of censorship and they have to fight the political battle.

Any marketing expert will tell you that it’s really difficult to get “cut through” with so many messages to handle at one time. It needs a tight, well executed, well managed campaign with a minimum of distraction.

Which brings us to the fourth debate – the one with the lightning rod in it.

What happens when Conroy says anything at all about the Internet filter?

His statements are circulated faithfully far and wide by his opponents; the statements are then minutely analysed under a microscope of fact and philosophy; refutations are crafted, published and redistributed far and wide; and his opponents, or at least some of them, then find ways to heap insults upon Senator Conroy’s head.

It’s quite amazing how easily even intelligent people can be induced to act in stupid ways.

Senator Conroy seems to persist, as one columnist put it, in painting a target on his back – and quicker than you can say ad hominiem, opponents to the filter flock to fire at the target. When it would be more effective to start talking to Opposition members (Tony Abbott seems ambivalent; Joe Hockey is against; so there’s at least a starting point to work from), opponents instead can’t resist responding to everything Senator Conroy says.

And they can’t resist reminding each other that they think he’s an idiot.

It’s a waste of energy. Of the four aspects of the filtering debate – the philosophical, the technical, the political and the personal – the one on which Senator Conroy is most secure is the personal.

No matter how loud the insults, they’re not going to seriously bother him. He’s a successful member of the ALP Right, who (by the way) doesn’t eat Chinese food (thus making a faction meeting an unfed torture, as well as making him the odd one out in the room). He’s certainly not some delicate flower who’s going to cry himself to sleep at night (and wake up with a new opinion in the morning) merely because someone called him an idiot.

Even getting rid of Conroy won’t get rid of the filter – it’s not just a personal thing, it’s endorsed by Cabinet. Attacking him in the hope that his unlikely removal would kill the proposal is just a waste of time.

Making Conroy unpopular is unlikely to lose him his Senate seat. That’s just the way our electoral system works: Victoria isn’t going to suddenly swing so far that a leading Senator will fail to get a quota at the next election (even if the government loses).

It’s a losing strategy to focus the debate on Senator Conroy.

This is why being a lightning rod doesn’t bother him. It keeps his opponents distracted from their strong points, focuses them on a fight they can’t win, and costs him nothing.

And the attacks risk alienating allies.

If all you understand of politics is the nightly excerpts of Question Time, vitriol looks like the normal business of politics. Those with a more sophisticated understanding know that you need more. You need to convince, and you need to attract friends.

Barking at the moon doesn’t attract friends: it alienates. People who might otherwise identify as supporters become wary. Those who want to know the arguments can’t hear them for all the noise. And those whose consider themselves strongly aligned – the “rusted on” ALP voters – are alienated not by argument but by a reflex to defend.

It’s not too late to defeat the filter – but a losing strategy won’t win the battle.

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