The advertising propaganda rort

Apr 6, 2022
Josh Frydenberg.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his budget speech referred over and over again to his ‘economic plan. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Morrison Government has ramped up its multi-million dollar spending on its most egregious rort of all, propaganda. Paid for from the public purse, to try to influence (in its favour) the way the public votes.

The campaign has reached a crescendo, following the Treasurer’s delivery of his Budget. It will continue until brought to an end when the writs for the election are issued. Technically at least, the government’s advertising campaign is supposed to end then. One has to assume that the public service would pull the plug on it, if Ministers refused to do so.

The campaign has been pushing ahead for many months. One of its more pernicious is its promotion of its environmental and climate change credentials. Ads such as ‘Australia’s investing in clean energy and creating thousands of jobs. It’s a win-win.’ (There’s a logo for the whole campaign: ‘Australia’s making positive energy’.) According to Senate estimates, almost $13 million was spent on this campaign in the lead up to the Glasgow climate talks. The amount spent since would probably be far greater.

Anyone relying for their knowledge of these subjects on what the advertising tells them might conclude the Government was playing a world-leading role is saving the planet. However, no-one whose vote is likely to be influenced by LNP or ALP policies on these issues is likely to find the advertisements credible. Still, many millions of dollars are being wasted trying to firm up the Government’s credentials in this controversial policy area.

The latest and most blatant piece of propaganda is about ‘Australia’s economic plan’. That’s the Government’s budget plan. In case you missed it, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his budget speech referred over and over again to his ‘economic plan’, and he and the Prime Minister and other ministers repeatedly referenced the ‘economic plan’ in all their speeches and interviews. It would hardly be a coincidence that the advertising campaign on the budget (including a dodgy graph) is headlined ‘Australia’s economic plan’ – All in capitals, with ‘ECONOMIC PLAN’ highlighted.

Government advertising has long been a controversial issue when used to promote the policies of the political part or parties, currently in power. Going back a decade and more there were bitter complaints from the then Opposition (the ALP) to campaigns of the Liberal-National Party Government promoting the benefits it claimed would flow from WorkChoices and tax reform.

It is all legal, so long as spending on the advertising is properly authorised in the relevant Appropriation Acts – which is done is the broadest possible terms to negate any judicial oversight. In this it is unlike the sports rorts saga where the legislation gave the power to make decisions to public servants, not to ministers who could be influenced by the votes that funding might influence and the electorates that might be retained or won.

Rorting generally is immoral, undemocratic and arguably illegal because ministers are supposed to make decisions based on the public interest – not their partisan political interests.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between the funding of sports rorts and the like, and the use of taxpayer funds to try to influence and manipulate public opinion to try to secure votes for the government. There is a community benefit – in the form of physical assets, infrastructure such as parking spaces or improved sporting facilities or women’s change rooms – from the former. Similarly, on a grander scale the allocation of regional funding to deal with and help the National Party deliver roads, bridges, dams and irrigation projects.

But the latter, advertising that is essentially soft party political propaganda, has no redeeming features. It is wholly bad, a complete waste and misuse of the public funds that are entrusted to government.

This is not to say that all government advertising is improper and invariably wrong and should be completely prohibited. There are occasions when advertising is necessary and has an undoubted public benefit, as was the case for example during much of the Covid pandemic, where it was essential that public health measures should be detailed, explained and, indeed, advocated. Similarly, it is unlikely anyone could object to the recent campaign run by the Federal Government against domestic violence.

But it cannot be a coincidence that for the past two elections in 2016 and 2019 federal government spending on advertising campaigns (as reported by the Department of Finance) in the six months relevant to each election was approximately three times the amount spent in the six months preceding that period and the six months that followed – for example, in 2019, about $101 million in the election period, and $31 and $35 million in the surrounding half years. There was a similar trend for the election that ended Julia Gillard’s Labor government in 2013.

It is hard to reconcile these actual expenditures with the guidelines supposedly enforced by the Federal Government. These state, ‘The underlying principles governing the use of public funds for all government information and advertising campaigns are that: …. governments may legitimately use public funds to explain government policies, programs or services, to inform members of the public of their obligations, rights and entitlements, to encourage informed consideration of issues or to change behaviour; and government campaigns must not be conducted for party political purposes.’

Tougher rules, specifically designed to ensuring the non-partisan nature of government advertising, are possible. For example, the rules in force in Queensland require the following:

1. There must be a direct and obvious benefit to the people of Queensland.

3. The clear benefit from any Government advertising must be in its informative or educative role so that there can be no perception of any party-political benefit.

5. Advertising must not try to foster a positive impression of a particular political party or promote party-political interests.

6. Advertising must not:

(d) be designed to influence public support for a political party, a candidate for

election or a Member of Parliament.’

And crucially, ‘7. There should be no advertising within six months of the scheduled date for an election unless there is an urgent emerging issue.’

That final rule is subject to some exceptions, none of which would permit the kind of advertising currently being used by the Federal Government. It is probably the most important of the rules that can reduce the misuse of government advertising for political purposes.

But in any event, a campaign co-ordinated with the Treasurer’s pre-election Budget speech and utilising its themes would be unthinkable under any guidelines that took account of the public interest.

(Disclosure: I contributed to the development and formulation of the Queensland advertising rules.)

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