Media policy, including the move to digital broadcasting, wasn’t mentioned at all at the ALP National Conference at the weekend — a fact that was gleefully seized upon by Minister for Communications Senator Helen Coonan to suggest that Labor doesn’t have a plan and that this proves “Labor is making a habit of creating policy on the run and is continually being caught out”.

Labor think that it can make it all the way to election day with glib lines and no detail on anything,” says Coonan.

Which may be spot on, or may be unfair. It’s hard to know. The last time commentators like me were beginning to suspect that media was a policy free zone for Labor, we were hit amidships by the bold plan for a national broadband network.

We should be cautious before assuming that Shadow Minister Stephen Conroy hasn’t done the hard yards – even though the broadband policy is short on detail, and there is nothing in Conroy’s recent statements to show engagement with other parts of media policy.

Rather the reverse. Earlier this year as part of its planned cost cuts Labor announced it would not proceed with setting up Digital Australia, the outfit Coonan has charged with driving the uptake of digital television. Coonan is already recruiting to this body, so will Labor sack the recruits if it takes government? What is its alternative plan to ensure we make it into the digital age?

Calls to Shadow Minister Stephen Conroy’s office over the weekend and this morning did not reassure. Earlier this year Conroy’s office promised that media policy would be released “after national conference”, with the impression that it would be soon after. This morning new media spokeswoman Sophie Mitchell would give no hints on timing.

“The policy will be released when it will be released,” she said and made it clear that asking more questions was a waste of time.

There are understandable strategic reasons for delay. Good policy on the key media issues would almost inevitably p-ss off the media moguls, since it would lead to them facing more competition and threats to their business models. Annoying media moguls is not a good move in an election year.

Here are a few of the things Labor is presumably considering:

  • Should there be a fourth free to air commercial television network? Should government buy and give away free digital set top boxes, to allow for the almost immediate transition to digital broadcasting and the opening up of the spectrum to new entrants?
  • Will Labor allow immediate multichanneling by existing free to air broadcasters, meaning Kerry Stokes will almost certainly use this to give Channel Seven a back door into pay television?
  • Will Labor promise to fund the ABC at levels in accordance with the KPMG report recommendations? How will Labor implement its promise to introduce an arm’s length means of appointing the ABC Board, to end the sad history of stacking by Governments of both colors?
  • Labor opposed the relaxation of cross media ownership regulations. That horse has now bolted, but what plans has Labor got to mandate media diversity into the future? What, apart from faster Broadband, will Labor do to encourage new entrants into the media industry?

That’s just for starters. Watch this space.

Peter Fray

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