What would an incoming Labor Government do if the changes to media law ownership regulation have not been proclaimed by the election date?

The scenario should cause some gnashing of teeth in media mogul land, because the deal makers at PBL and Channel Seven in particular have to face the admittedly small possibility that the new laws will never come into effect, leaving them all dressed up in debt driven private equity cash but with nowhere to go.

It is now possible, on one interpretation of events, that the Government will not have proclaimed the laws before next year’s election. The Canberra Press Gallery today defies those who accuse it of group-think, by coming up with several different interpretations of the same set of documents and statements.

The normally well informed David Crowe on page six of today’s Financial Review says the media ownership changes could be pushed back until late next year, and possibly until after the election.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lisa Murray broadly agrees but The Age’s Katharine Murphy takes an entirely different tack in a story headlined “Changes in Media Could Start Early”.

More on what lies behind this engagingly post-modern difference in textual analysis later.

But what would Labor do?

It’s hard to say. After a bit of toing and froing this morning during which it looked as though they might say something braver, Shadow Communications spokesman Stephen Conroy’s office came up with this: “Labor will deal with the media laws that exist at the time we come to office”.

What does that mean? No clear answer was forthcoming. Labor will release a “pro-diversity” media policy after its federal conference next year.

Conroy’s office also pointed out that if the laws were not proclaimed, they would automatically come into effect on 1 January 2008. Legislation would be needed to prevent this, and regardless of the election result the Coalition parties will have control of the Senate until at least 1 July 2008,. This would bring the heat back on to Family First’s Steve Fielding.

But how much of a likelihood is this scenario? The press gallery differs.

Helen Coonan stated yesterday that she wants to “broadly align” the proclamation of changes to media ownership regulation with the provision of the new Datacasting services, but that the services would not have to be actually up and running.

This came at the same time as the Australian Communications and Media Authority released a dense discussion paper, hedged around with disclaimers and maybes, tentatively laying out a timetable for the allocation of the spectrum for these services. There were several key dates: May for the release of sales documents, and August and October for the actual sale of the licences.

The Age has assumed that Coonan’s “broadly aligned” could mean as early as May. The SMH and the Fin are assuming she means August to October, which takes the introduction of media law changes and the likely feeding frenzy that will result right up to the election. This means the Government will probably want to further delay their introduction.

Senator Coonan’s office, contacted by Crikey this morning, declined to clarify, though there were some vague words about the process for the allocation of the licences having to be “somewhat advanced”. This would suggest May is too early.

And the sale of the new licences is only one factor influencing the decision on when to proclaim, Coonan’s spokeswoman said.

In other words, it’s all up in the air, and the decision on when or if to proclaim the laws will be largely political. I think we can expect it to happen as fast as can be, or else not until after the election.

One can understand Labor’s reluctance to give clear answers. Given what the Packer organisation has at stake, how could this not be an election issue?

Peter Fray

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