Let the media games begin! Probably, perhaps, and before too long. Maybe.

Australia’s media companies are all cashed up and raring to go, but Senator Helen Coonan has yet to say when she plans to fire the gun and proclaim the new media ownership laws, a moment that will trigger a flurry of takeovers and mergers.

Meanwhile Shadow Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s office claims “active consideration” is being given to the question of what to do if the laws are not proclaimed and Labor comes to power.

Proclamation can’t occur until the Australian Communications and Media Authority has finished its homework. There are two parts to this: completion of a register of ownership, and work to do with the licence conditions for regional broadcasters to ensure levels of local content and declaration of cross ownership following mergers. ACMA told Senate Estimates last week that this work would be completed within weeks.

Yet, under questioning, Coonan would commit only to proclamation sometime this year. Her office declined to expand on that this morning. “We’re not entering into any speculation on timelines,” a spokeswoman said.

So is the Howard Government having second thoughts? A media feeding frenzy, fuelled by anonymous foreign private equity cash may be the last thing the Government needs in an election year when there are already sensitivities about iconic local companies falling into foreign hands.

On the other hand the Government can hardly afford to p-ss off the big media companies by leaving them all cashed up with nowhere to go. It would be extraordinary if it squibbed it. Fifteen billion dollars of media deals hang in the balance.

To recap on the contenders cashed up, poised and waiting for the starter’s gun: Both Kerry Stokes’ Channel Seven and the Packer organisation have brought in private equity cash through deals that can’t be fully consummated until the laws go through. Both organisations will be buyers – though Packer may be more interested in casinos than media.

Channel Ten’s foreign owners have hung out a “for sale” sign. The O’Reilly family’s Independent News and Media, also fuelled by private equity, is trying to buy out the shares it doesn’t own in APN with plans to use that company as a base for expansion. This week the O’Reilly family’s Dublin-based PR flack spoke to Crikey and declined to rule out a bid for Fairfax – or for anything else.

The Macquarie Bank is interested in expansion – perhaps in the WIN regional television network and other regional broadcasting assets.

Fairfax and Rural Press are planning to merge – if another deal doesn’t pip that at the post. Telstra, Fairfax and others are awaiting the auction of the two new datacasting licences.

And beneath the radar of most media commentary, foreign players are quietly flexing. Javier Moll, whose Prensa Iberica is a leading publisher in Spain and Portugal and who already owns the Adelaide Review, is quietly building a national stable of street magazines. There may be other plans. Moll has long hungered for his own Australian metropolitan daily newspaper.

Meanwhile Labor has said precisely nothing about what it will do should it come to power with the media laws not yet proclaimed. Shadow Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy has condemned what Coonan has done without offering an alternative plan.

Conroy’s office promises a comprehensive media policy will emerge after Labor’s federal conference at the end of April. Perhaps someone is beavering away on it, but Labor insiders say little work has been done on the detail so far. It is not seen as one of the issues that will turn the votes that Labor needs.

The issue is a minefield. Labor can’t afford annoy the media companies, but a new Labor Government would have to move quickly if it wanted to stop the laws. If not proclaimed, they will automatically come into force on 1 January 2008. That means a new Labor Government would need to come up with fresh legislation very fast, and get it through the Senate, where it is most unlikely to have a majority.

Stephen Allen, media analyst of Fusion Strategy, thinks there is little chance that the Government will squib the proclamation, but suggests the Government’s poor poll results could mean delay, precisely to make the media companies nervous and enable “the calling in of favours” as close as possible to the election date.

Meanwhile it’s worth remembering that just about all the major ownership moves so far have taken the analysts by surprise. The truth is nobody really knows what will happen.

Not even, to her chagrin, Senator Helen Coonan – who was once foolish enough to say she didn’t think there would be big changes as the result of her laws.

She got that wrong.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey