Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Our uncommunicative Communications Minister

Three nights ago Australia’s Communications Minister Helen Coonan was handed an opportunity some of her colleagues would have died for – a prestigious platform from which to explain her thinking to an influential audience with no questions allowed.

Senator Coonan was invited to deliver the eleventh Andrew Olle Media Lecture, the first Government Minister so invited. Previous speakers have included the comedian John Doyle (who was funny but impassioned) and as it happens Lachlan Murdoch and Kerry Stokes.

It was a heaven-sent opportunity to explain exactly what the changes to Australia’s media laws were all about.

She chose not to use it.

Instead the Minister in charge of those changes spoke for the best part of an hour about the exciting new world of computers. You can read the speech on her website.

It’s been five weeks since the Senate vote that gave her the new media law she wanted and unleashed a multi-billion dollar corporate feeding frenzy.

At the time Helen Coonan said she didn’t expect a wave of takeover activity.

The tsunami is about to begin... In preparation James Packer and now Kerry Stokes have built up multi-billion dollar war chests with the help of American investors who would have been unable to pump the money in under the old rules.

On the copping block is John Fairfax Holdings, which owns the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, and in an earlier incarnation used to own this newspaper.

Circling, and in once case already owning shares, are Rupert Murdoch, James Packer and now Kerry Stokes. It is likely that each will get a piece of Fairfax.

On Friday the Minister could have explained why all this was necessary to the most interested (and captive) audience possible. If she had access to economic modeling that pointed to the benefits of the changes she could have released it.

She is not shy of releasing such economic modeling where it supports what her government has done. Yesterday she released the results of modeling about the effect of the 1997 telecommunications reform. She said it had made the Australian economy $15.2 billion larger.

What about the effect of the legislation that she was actually responsible for?

How does a wave of takeovers and the breaking up of one of Australia’s most important media voices benefit Australians or the Australian economy?

And what’s going to happen when the Americans who are putting up the billions want to see a return on the money they have chanced?

Will they slash content, jack up prices or close publications down. Or perhaps something else?

The Minister’s Department has doubtless thought about this. There might even be a plan. It’d be nice to know what it is.