By James Grubel
CANBERRA - Australian plans to reform media laws and strengthen scrutiny of newspapers and media mergers appeared doomed on Tuesday (19/03/2013), prompting new tension within Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s struggling minority government.
A day after Britain’s politicians agreed on a deal for stronger news media regulation, Gillard’s plan to appoint a media advocate, to enforce rulings against newspapers and to review mergers, was struggling to gain parliamentary support.
The planned reforms unleashed a wave of anger from media owners who said the changes were an attack on free speech, with the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp describing them as Stalinist and draconian.
The plans have also ignited tension within the government and raised new concern about Gillard’s hold on the prime ministership ahead of elections set for Sept. 14, with polls showing her government is likely to be easily defeated.
Gillard’s critics within the government have questioned her judgement by picking a row with media companies in the lead-up to an election.
However, two ministers, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Mental Health Minister Mark Butler, publicly declared support for her after reports they had lost confidence in her leadership.
"The prime minister has my unqualified support,” Carr told reporters in Washington, adding the media was "in a frenzy” of speculation about the leadership.
In Canberra, backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon added to the tension when he questioned the government’s tactics on the media laws at a closed meeting of government lawmakers.
The government unveiled the media reform in a package of six bills a week ago in response to two inquiries set up after phone-hacking scandals in Britain, although there has been no phone hacking claim in Australia. Media owners say stronger regulations are not necessary.
"I WILL WIN"
Despite the internal concern over the media laws, the Labor Party meeting did not move to replace Gillard despite a long-running push by her opponents to bring back former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was dumped by his party in June 2010 but continues to enjoy a stronger rating in opinion polls.
Parliament adjourns on Thursday for a seven-week break ahead of the May 14 budget, giving lawmakers only two more days to act if they decide to change leaders this session.
Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott challenged Gillard to accept that a defeat on the media package would represent a vote of no-confidence in her government.
But Gillard hit back, saying she had no intention of calling an early election if the media bills were defeated.
"And let me say very clearly to the leader of the opposition it will be a contest ... between a strong feisty woman and a policy-weak man and I will win it,” she told parliament.
The minority government needs support from five of the seven cross-bench lawmakers to pass its laws. Two oppose the media laws, while the Greens and two independents want amendments.
Australian media is among the world’s most concentrated, with News Corp, a strong critic of the government, controlling about 70 percent of newspapers. The other main newspaper group is Fairfax Media.
Australia also has three main free-to-air television networks: Nine, owned by private equity group CVC Capital Partners, Ten Network Holdings and Seven West Media, as well as the publicly funded ABC and SBS television networks. (Editing by Robert Birsel) - Reuters