The Minister for Zeal

Conroy speaking at a conference.
Conroy speaking at a conference.

The tabloid's front page was an outrage, they said. On television, radio and Twitter, people were spluttering about propaganda and hate-filled distortion. Labor ministers were seething.

On Wednesday, March 13, the day after Stephen Conroy announced Labor's controversial media ''reforms'', a tabloid newspaper displayed the face of the Communications Minister next to history's most ruthless dictators, including Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. ''These despots believe in controlling the press'', read the headline, ''Conroy joins them''.

But the best place to view that front page today would be in Conroy's ministerial office, where he has it framed and proudly on display. This is classic Conroy, his colleagues say. When Conroy's former mentor, Victorian senator Robert Ray, accused him of being a ''factional dalek'', a brightly coloured inflatable dalek was soon seen in Conroy's office.

Conroy's detractors say his attitude to criticism speaks volumes about his character. He is arrogant and stubborn, they say, and shies from self-reflection. A senior colleague describes Conroy as ''certifiable'' and another says Conroy has ''never used his position of influence to really bring in more new talent into the party''. Instead, Conroy recruits ''just factional hacks … numbers that give [him] support''.

''Once you start going down that path, it damages the party and it damages the national interest,'' says the colleague, who declines to go on the record.

Other colleagues point out that at no time since announcing the media reforms last month has Conroy admitted any mistakes. Not for ramming the bills through cabinet and caucus without debate; not for putting an offensive ultimatum to crossbenchers - that they pass the bills by the end of the following week without negotiation. And certainly not for destabilising his party so much that by the following week there had been another failed leadership spill.

The last politician to pass significant media reforms in Australia, John Howard's communications minister Helen Coonan, watched Conroy's media announcement on television in ''open-mouthed amazement''. So did his colleagues.

''No doubt that it could've been handled better, but I think Stephen Conroy was very courageous,'' former chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon said. Another senior colleague described it as a ''clusterf---''.

Conroy's supporters in the party point out that in the past several years he has led Labor's most ambitious and popular project, the national broadband network. He has also negotiated an $11 billion deal with Telstra, achieving the major reform of structurally separating the telecommunications company. They skirt around the disasters. The recent media reforms, which died within a week, for example. Or his attempt to ''filter'' the internet.

One thing all agree on is that Conroy is driven - and driven by the numbers. He has become one of the two or three most powerful ministers within the Gillard government, largely through his skill at recruiting supporters.

While it is understood Conroy has never been close to Gillard on a personal level, he is now, alongside Treasurer Wayne Swan, part of a praetorian guard protecting her job. But some of Conroy's colleagues believe that, ironically, by protecting the Prime Minister, Conroy has weakened her, reinforcing a perception that her government is hollow. That it is now led by ministers who are more skilled at convincing their own caucus than they are the community.

But how much can one man be blamed for a party's malaise? And is there more to Conroy than the portraits so frequently drawn in the media? For this article, Fairfax Media has interviewed more than a dozen of Conroy's colleagues past and present, former staffers, friends, opponents and a former boss. Conroy declined requests for an interview or to respond to others' comments.

Two words frequently used by people who've known Conroy a long time are ''passion'' and ''zeal''. These traits were obvious to Barry Jones, a minister in the Hawke government, who employed Conroy when he was starting out in politics. Jones was Conroy's boss for about three months in 1987. Jones' outstanding memories of the 24-year-old Conroy were that he put an ''immense amount of zeal'' into every task and was ''a formidable recruiter'' when it came to filling Labor branches.

''I suppose I thought of him being a kind of political technician, somebody whose main interest was in the technique of politics,'' Jones said.

A friend of Conroy's and fellow diehard Collingwood fan Eddie McGuire says he enjoys the minister's ''passionate'' side. McGuire recalls sitting near Conroy in the grandstand to watch the 2010 AFL grand final between Collingwood and St Kilda - a nail-biting contest in which the teams drew the first game and Collingwood won the second.

''The first game at half-time we were killing them,'' McGuire said. ''Steve was pumped up at half-time. I said, 'For god's sake, settle down'. I had to grab him and say, 'Go easy mate. I've been around long enough to know you can't take that for granted.' He's very passionate, as one-eyed as they come.''

After working in Canberra as an adviser for Jones and another Labor minister, Ros Kelly, Conroy moved to Melbourne in the late 1980s. He then trod the classic paths to Labor power.

First, ''Steve worked at the Transport Workers Union and became well-regarded there'', a close colleague said. ''He can call up their support when he needs it.''

Second, the colleague said, Conroy grasped early the power of ''recruitment'' or branch stacking, particularly within Melbourne's Turkish and Vietnamese communities.

If Conroy had a third path to power, it was paved by Robert Ray, who became a mentor and patron. By the age of 33 in 1996, Conroy had entered the Senate.

As a leader of Labor's Victorian Right faction, Conroy, alongside Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, has proven adept at accumulating influence.

Conroy has ''spent a lot of time cultivating people'', says an old friend, former Labor senator Graham Richardson. ''But he's an unusual cultivator, if you like. The thing that surprises me about him is he's very direct, painfully direct - he doesn't bullshit.'' Conroy's friend and colleague in the Victorian Right, Richard Marles, says ''it's hard to think of anybody who has been more influential in the Victorian Labor Party over a long period of time''.

What Conroy does, says another senior colleague, is ''stack branches and seek to use the threat to get his own way''.

But Conroy's former deputy chief of staff, Philip Dalidakis, insists that Conroy only ever wields his power to achieve worthy political and policy outcomes. ''Steve's never been about power for power's sake,'' he said. ''And I think that puts him at odds with other people that have been involved factionally.''

In a diary entry dated October 25, 2004, former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote that when he was talking to Conroy about what shadow portfolio he might like, Conroy told him ''he doesn't have any strong policy interests''.

''It's a frank admission,'' Latham wrote. ''Machine men aren't interested in policy, only factions and patronage.''

The Coalition often portrays Conroy as being anti-business and needlessly aggressive towards the top end of town. But that is not strictly true. In January 2010, Conroy went snowboarding in Beaver Creek, Colorado, accompanying billionaire Seven Network boss Kerry Stokes. Their snow meeting occurred a month before Labor cut television licence fees by $250 million.

Soon after the snow trip, Conroy reportedly joined another billionaire, James Packer, for a round of golf at a private club owned by Melbourne businessman Lloyd Williams. It is understood Conroy still enjoys a close relationship with Packer. And it has not escaped the notice of some within the media industry that while Conroy today says he worries about the influence of the Murdoch empire; he expressed no such reservations when Murdoch's News Limited paid about $2 billion for Packer's Consolidated Media Holdings late last year.

The question now for Conroy is whether he fully evolves into a senior minister and elder statesman of Labor, or whether he remains mired in internal politicking.

There is an expectation within the Labor Party that once a factional leader rises to senior ministerial positions, as Conroy has done, they should leave the mucky business of factionalism to others. Conroy claims to have done that. In 2009 he told journalist Michelle Grattan that he was so tied up in his communications portfolio, he did almost no factional work. Conroy's colleagues laugh at that suggestion.

Last week it emerged that Conroy was involved in a power struggle to decide who would get preselected for the safe Labor seat of Gellibrand, in Melbourne's south-west.

The incumbent, former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, who will resign at the September election, wants her former staffer Katie Hall for the seat. But Conroy is lobbying for his own former staffer, Telstra executive Tim Watts. And Conroy has reportedly become infuriated by the nomination of a third candidate who is linked to the Health Services Union.

Given Conroy's sway in the electorate, his factional colleagues say they would be amazed if Conroy's guy doesn't win.

Conroy is ''not without brains'', said a senior colleague. ''But he'd be far more respected if he just stopped being a factional player. You know they call them the ShortCons [Shorten and Conroy] in Melbourne. The two of them will never grow out of it''.

This story The Minister for Zeal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.