WITH ITS new Senate stronghold, the Commonwealth Government is expected to pass a number of reforms that will likely affect the amount of work available to lawyers.
If the Government’s intentions come to fruition, 2005 will bring with it a relaxation of cross and foreign media ownership rules, a wave of industrial relations reforms, and the full privatisation of Telstra.
Now the Government is able to push its reforms through the Senate, despite opposition from Labor and the minor parties, limits on foreign ownership of Australian media companies will likely be eased and restrictions lifted on entities owning more than one newspaper, TV or radio station in the same city.
In the Coalition’s broadcasting policy, released prior to the election, Communications Minister Helen Coonan said the Government was determined to change what it labelled Australia’s “outdated” media ownership laws.
Depending on the precise nature of the laws, said practice head of the corporate group at Freehills, Mark Crean, it is expected the changes will “lead to a series of mergers or acquisitions”. “Any number of permutations could arise,” he said. If the market is correct, there could be some interesting and challenging matters for lawyers to be involved in next year, he added.
Crean referred to changes to cross media laws in the late 1980s that allowed networks to own more than a limited number of licences. “Those changes lead to various transactions as media acquisitions were made,” he said.
The Howard Government in October, unveiled its plans for industrial relations reform. The backlash for lawyers will be work in digesting legislation, but also in determining when state laws may apply and what potential remains for claims.
With virtual carte blanche to pass what it wants through the Senate, the Government now promises to reduce the duplication of state and federal industrial relations law coverage. Further, it intends to simplify and extend the use of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and to push for an overhaul of unfair dismissal laws.
There are two potential areas of work for lawyers in this predicted wave of legislative reform, according to Harmers Workplace Lawyers senior associate Peter Smith.
One battlefield will be determining when state laws apply. “It does depend on how they try and do this, but when you take away federal regulation there is potential that state laws kick in.”
As well, Smith anticipated that more employees who are exempt from federal law will explore alternative legal action.
Potential changes “will not mean the death of employment law”, said Abbott Tout senior associate Seamus Burke, but will mean lawyers will find themselves looking at different claims.
As well, the political will to support privatisation of Telstra exists, at least on the Government’s side. The Howard Government has said its “longstanding policy” is to fully privatise Telstra.
One third of the Government’s equity was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1997, an additional 16 per cent was sold in 1999, and Telstra conducted a buy-back of around 3.7 per cent of its listed shares in late 2003. This left Telstra 51.05 per cent owned by the Commonwealth Government.
Although not yet aware of the precise timetable of the Telstra 3 sale, the legal profession now braces itself for the imminent sale.
Freehills’ Crean said the Commonwealth Government selection processes normally involve selection through tender. Freehills has acted for the Commonwealth Government on a number of privatisations, including the sale of Sydney airport and the Telstra 1 and Telstra 2 sales. Crean said the sale “will involve a very large and interesting transaction for the lawyers involved”.
The first stage of the process is likely to be a scoping study, according to commentators. Financial and legal advisers would be chosen to advise on a framework for the transaction. This will be the first element of the job, but the majority of the work will be in the actual privatisation.