Flat White

The Battle of the Bergs boosts Josh’s leadership ambitions

24 February 2021

12:02 PM

24 February 2021

12:02 PM

In the words of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Facebook has re-friended Australia.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg agreed to Facebook once again enabling Australian news organisations and users to post news content on the oligopolistic platform, less than one week after his Pearl Harbor-like dawn attack that caught up healthcare providers, community organisations, and even that great journal of record, the Betoota Advocate.

But Zuckerberg did not anticipate the tenacity and obstinacy of Frydenberg.

When it came to the Battle of the Bergs, one mountain had to be more immovable than the other, and that appears to be Frydenberg.  The broad settlement announced yesterday has Facebook joining Google in paying traditional media some recompense for the content from which the social network derives handsome income and profit through data harvesting, and targeting and selling advertising.  Given this was the fundamental principle being fought over, Zuckerberg’s concession appears to be a clear win for Australia — and Frydenberg’s leadership ambitions.

In return, Frydenberg has agreed to amend the government’s new media bargaining code legislation to make it more palatable to Facebook. Particularly, the coercive elements of the code now will apply as a last resort; voluntary agreements between providers and platforms voluntarily arrived at will be encouraged; and provisions for arbitration before things get really nasty will be included in the amended legislation package, which should pass through federal parliament by the end of this week.

At the time of writing, however, the actual detail of those amendments is yet to be seen — hence the qualification above.

It won’t be until later today we will not know whether Frydenberg has had a comprehensive win in the Battle of the Bergs, or it is more a fudged compromise. But regardless, the Treasurer can say his success in maintaining the principles of the code, especially Facebook paying for exploiting news content, leaves him in possession of the field. The government will be calling this as a victory all the way, especially as Labor has swung in behind it.

The results of this battle will have been watched around the world, and Zuckerberg well knows it. Backed by the Prime Minister, Frydenberg has set a precedent for other national governments, many of which in this battle offered Australia every support short of actual assistance.  No doubt, however, few governments will waste much time in getting on this horse.

When a senior adviser to John Howard, Frydenberg had a reputation as being ambitious, intellectually brilliant and charming. But he was also regarded by many as something of a dilettante who coasted rather than doing the proverbial hard yards when that could be avoided.  In more recent years, his open leadership ambitions have not always endeared him to his colleagues.  But as a person and a politician, Frydenberg has matured well: his fortitude in the thankless role of Malcolm Turnbull’s energy minister; his leadership as Treasurer through the worst of the Covid pandemic; and now his apparent victory in this Battle of the Bergs over a fair play principle that counterparts around the Western have not dared fight for, collectively have buried any such lingering perceptions.

As deputy leader of the Liberal party, Frydenberg is by definition the heir presumptive to Scott Morrison, whenever the PM steps down.  Now he is also unchallenged heir apparent, and deservedly so. The succession to the prime ministership is now his to lose and, knowing Frydenberg, he will work hard indeed to ensure his position remains unassailable.

An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia’s Morning Double Shot email. Sign up and make sure you don’t miss out here.

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