Government Advertising: public interest or party interest?

Suddenly, everyone seems interested in controlling federal government advertising. Kathy MacDermott looks at where the major parties sit in relation to this and the opportunities for reform the current situation provides.

Reform to government advertising is part of point 7 of the Independents’ seven key demands. The Prime Minister has undertaken to pursue such reform, and the Leader of the Opposition has said that he is at least happy to consider it.

Mr Abbott’s comment also represents progress of a sort, since the last Coalition Government denied that any such reforms to its media campaigns were necessary. This was a Government that in its time became Australia’s biggest advertiser, ahead of corporations such as McDonalds or Coca-Cola.

Political parties fund their election advertising from political donations. Between elections incumbent governments fund their advertising through taxpayers. Such advertising is meant to inform the public about government business. It is not meant to be used for party political propaganda. Nevertheless, Opposition parties and taxpayers have been increasingly concerned that party political business is often what it is being used for.

In 2007, Labor in Opposition promised that if it took Government, it would see that advertising and information campaigns would provide objective, factual and explanatory information, free from partisan promotion of government policy.

The Rudd Government met its commitment to deliver guidelines on government advertising. The 2008 Advertising Guidelines were not legislated and were not always clear with respect to some procedural matters. But they did have a practical impact, so much so that there was outrage earlier this year when the Government gave itself an exemption from its own Guidelines in order to fast-track a defensive campaign on its proposed mining tax.

The problem is that there will always be a temptation for incumbent governments to turn explanations of their policy decisions into good news broadcasts. Until they are made into law, advertising guidelines will always remain vulnerable to reinterpretation or revision; following a change of Government, they could be ignored altogether.

Getting legislation to control government advertising should not be too hard. Since 1995 Guidelines have been considered and revised by the Auditor-General, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. The 2008 Rudd Government Guidelines—which drew substantially on these processes—were themselves reviewed in 2010. In 2009, in the face of Government opposition, the Liberals and Greens combined to pass legislation public information campaigns in the ACT.

Political parties are not the only ones who are taking an interest in curbing government advertising. The Centre for Policy Development has a collection of ideas for citizens and a to-do list for politicians called More than Luck, which looks in detail at both political donations and government advertising. . GetUp! has developed a Blueprint for Australian Democracy that recommends substantially the same legislation.

Legislation on political advertising is unlikely ever to appeal to incumbent governments.  That means that the current situation offers a rare opportunity to do something about it.