The Australian government is close to pushing through legislation to relax the country’s media ownership laws.

The proposals were first unveiled last year [WAMN: 22-Mar-02]. Despite criticism of the changes, ministers' protracted campaign to have them passed could pay off this week.

Under the suggested reform, media firms will be allowed in a single market to own businesses in two of three sectors – newspapers, TV and radio – rather than the current limit of one.

In an amendment accepted last week, this rule will apply in cities too, replacing the existing law forbidding newspaper, TV or radio firms from owning more than 15% of a rival in the same city.

Restrictions on foreign companies will also be lifted. Currently, overseas firms cannot own more than 15% of an Australian TV company or 25% of a newspaper group.

The legislation is debated in the Senate this week. However, the government does not have a majority in this chamber and is dependent on winning four votes in addition to its own. As a result, it has been courting four independent senators – hence last week’s amendments, which also include a provision to review media ownership in three years.

Critics of the reforms fear they could spark a wave of consolidation in Australia’s media sector. One possible takeover target is newspaper group John Fairfax Holdings – reportedly being eyed by other indigenous operators such as Kerry Packer’s Publishing & Broadcasting and foreign players such as Irish businessman Sir Tony O’Reilly.

However, communications minister Richard Alston insists Australia “will be left in an information Stone Age” if it fails to pass the reforms.

Data sourced from: multiple sources; additional content by WARC staff