Unchain my heart: regulating government advertising

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There is a legitimate role for government advertising, but we have failed to
establish its legitimate scope and tenor.

Debate on the issue is nothing new. Government advertising has been controversial
since at least 1995, when the Keating government spent $12 million promoting
its Working Nation package.

Two major campaigns from the past decade, however, have put the issue centre stage.

The Howard Government allocated $420 million to explain the new tax system in the
lead up to the introduction of the GST in 2000.

Some $36 million was spent on the “Unchain My Heart” advertisements. Television
spots began with a male voiceover, “Australia is currently being held
back. We are tied to a tax system that has been patched up over and over again
since the 1930s.

“Over the years, it’s just got more complicated, more old fashioned and less fair.

“At the same time, income taxes have just kept going up giving workers less and
less incentive to earn more.

“Average workers now pay a top rate of 43 per cent.

“Our current system has heaps of unfair, illogical, hidden sales taxes.

“Expensive restaurant meals are tax free.

“Cleaning products are taxed at 22 per cent.

“Toothpaste is taxed.” An ironic chuckle went in here. “Toothbrushes aren’t…”

Then the music came in that gave the ads their name – aging blues rocker Joe Cocker
singing, “Unchain my heart. Set me free…”

The then opposition leader, Kim Beazley, called the campaign “blatant political
propaganda”. His shadow Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, claimed “The whole
message of the GST ‘In Chains’ commercial is that if you disagree with the
Government’s GST campaign, then you’re holding back the country in chains.”

Despite the controversy, it was arguable that the Coalition was simply following a
trend that had begun in the eighties with the Grim Reaper campaign.

The Grim Reaper spots galvanised community awareness of the dangers of HIV and
AIDS.

They did so by departing completely from the dry style of official announcement that
had previously characterised government advertising.

They represented a new, creative direction for public information campaigns.

Their brilliant success legitimised the move.

Despite the stylistic departures from the past, however, the Grim Reaper campaign dealt
with a very traditional topic for government advertising: public health.

The “Unchain My Heart” advertisements promoted changes to taxation that had been
passed by the parliament. It was the feelgood tone and the cost of the campaign
that caused the stir.

The Howard Government’s workplace relations campaign in 2005 represented something
very different. The government started an extensive advertising campaign promoting changes to the industrial relations system before the legislation had been released, let alone passed into law.

The cost, the tenor and the timing of campaigns are all now causing concern.

“There is a widespread perception that government advertising campaigns are employed
for party-political and electoral advantage,” Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans
has said. “The perception is that the party in government uses taxpayer-funded
government advertising campaigns as a supplement to party political advertising
to achieve favourable perception of the party in the electorate, and favourable
election results.”

Commonwealth campaigns are at the centre of the debate, but the state governments are just as enthusiastic in their use of taxpayer funded advertising to promote their
policies.

“No one’s hands are clean,” Sally Young from Melbourne University has said.

Labor governments in NSW and Victoria have run extensive advertising campaigns in the
lead up to elections.

Graeme Orr from Griffith University has talked about “desperate” attempts by the Beattie Labor government to use advertising “to buy itself out of political holes created by chronic problems in the public health system”. He described “advertisements, under the premier’s signature, blaming the federal government for a doctor shortage” as “particularly
egregious”.

“No one could object to ministers bolstering their political position by disseminating such figures and accusations,” Orr says. “The question is why traditional methods such as parliamentary statements and press releases and conferences – which involve debating in domains that are equally accessible to all sides of politics – no longer suffice.”

This may be the most worrying aspect of government advertising campaigns.

As Young says: “While communication between citizens and their government is a
crucial part of democratic discourse, unlike other traditional methods such as
oratory and debate, advertising is an expensive method of communication… it
only works one way – from government to citizens – without any opportunity for
citizens to respond.”

Young claims that Australia’s government advertising regulatory system is “almost non-existent”.

“We have the weakest rules of any comparable country in the world,” she says.
“Unlike Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, we have no guidelines or legislation prohibiting the misuse of government advertising for partisan
purposes.”

In 2004, Evans made a submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration
References Committee Inquiry into Government Advertising and Accountability
setting out a six point test for government advertisements.

“It should be possible for governments to lay down a transparent and regular
process for formulating government advertising projects,” he said. “Government could simply agree to regulate itself.”

It could, but it appears unwilling.

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