Rex Patrick: Michael West Media

While we’ve been busily distracted on the big issues like cost of living, AUKUS, the Voice, access to doctors and a broken gas market, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been quietly wrapping a highly controversial topic in a Cabinet secrecy blanket. Rex Patrick looks at politicised government advertising and raises concerns about the new Government Communications Sub-Committee of Cabinet.

Political donations and advertising

Most people take issue with political donations; not the small donations that allow a person to support their political party, but the large donations that are made to grant access to politicians and to influence them. Big political donations distort democracy.

Ultimately the donations are about advertising. The kitty built up by a major political party over a parliamentary period is largely used to pay for print, radio, TV and social media advertising to persuade voters to cast their vote in the party’s favour.

So, to complete the circle; democracy gets distorted by donations that are used to pay for ads that are designed to influence the very voters that suffer from the distortion.

But wait, there’s more …

Government advertising

Government, as distinct from political parties, spends a lot of money on advertising. Last financial year the Federal government spent $240 million on government advertising. That’s right – nearly a quarter of a billion of taxpayers’ dollars went on ads.  

Proper government advertising is not a bad thing. It’s quite legitimately used to inform Australians; to support the effective delivery and implementation of government policies, programs, assistance, initiatives and services. Major federal government advertising activities include campaigns relating to health, social welfare and Defence Force recruitment.  

But government advertising can also be used to gain political advantage through the partisan promotion of a government’s views rather than meeting the genuine information needs of citizens.

The Grattan Institute recently looked closely into Federal Government advertising and found that, of the nearly $200 million spent each year, nearly $50 million is spent on ad campaigns that are politicised.

The Institute estimates that, over the past 13 years, $630 million has been spent on federal campaigns that spruik government achievements, and/or were timed to run on the eve of federal elections.

So, in addition to ads paid for by private donations, democracy gets distorted by ads paid for by the taxpayers’ themselves.

It an unacceptable situation.

Cheques and bank balances

In June 2000, then opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley, so frustrated by Prime Minister John Howard’s political exploitation of government advertising, and in particular a $431 million dollar campaign to promote the GST, introduced a Government Advertising (Objectivity, Fairness and Accountability) Bill 2000.

“The Bill will … require government advertising to meet minimum standards with respect to objectivity, fairness and accountability, and to prohibit the expenditure of taxpayers’ money on advertising which promotes party political interests. 

The Bill did not pass; Prime Minister Howard had no interest in that.  

Over the following two decades, however, some modest changes were introduced into the system whereby all government advertising campaigns involving more than $250,000 in public expenditure must, except in an emergency, be reviewed by an Independent Communications Committee. The Committee provides advice back to departmental secretaries as to whether a campaign is related to government responsibilities, objective, non-political, efficient, cost effective and compliant with the law.

The Grattan Institute’s work (and the regular complaints from successive oppositions) show the system is not achieving its goal.

A strong legislative framework is required that sets out advertising principles in clear form, requires independent approval for advertising activities, permits the Federal Court to injunct or prohibit the government continuing with a non-compliant campaign and would require a governing political party to repay public funds in circumstances where an Auditor-General review found a campaign to be politicised.

Taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be diverted away from funding for health, education, aged care and a myriad of other needs to instead serve the partisan political interests of the government of the day. 

Unfair distortion

As a general starting point, the democracy distortion that public funding of politicised government creates works against oppositions, minor parties, teals and independents.

Nothing motivates a governing party more than staying in power. There is a real risk that the Labor Party will look to exploit government advertising to improperly distort the vote. 

Government advertising usually delivers, positive and ‘soft’ political messaging, freeing up money from private donations to fund negative, hard-edged attack ads.  Advertising works; many simply don’t follow politics on a day-to-day basis can and will be significantly influenced by advertising.  

Secrecy blanket

And that brings us back to the secrecy blanket that Albanese appears to have created.

One of the most offensive abuses of Cabinet secrecy in the Morrison Government was the Governance Committee of Cabinet. It was the place that Morrison took all indiscretions by his ministers to publicly bury breaches of ministerial standards. 

Whether it be Christopher Pyne leaving the Defence Minister’s role to work in Defence or Senator McKenzie’s overriding Sport Australia in the selection of community grant recipients, the Governance Committee of Cabinet was the place where these things were sent to be obscured from public view for 20 years.

Governance is something necessarily dealt with in open forum. That didn’t stop Morrison doing what he did.

Nearly a year after Morrison’s electoral downfall, there’s been little scrutiny of his successor’s approach to Cabinet government.  After all, Anthony Albanese’s government was elected promising to clean up the abuses of his predecessor.

Many people have been content to give the new team time and the benefit of the doubt. That said, there are signs that there’s much of the same instead of a change.

One pointer in this direction is Albanese’s quiet establishment of a ‘Government Communications Subcommittee’ as part of his Cabinet committee system.  

The GCS, as it is known, is tasked to provide “oversight and coordination of Government advertising campaigns”.  The subcommittee is formally subordinate to the powerful Priority and Delivery Committee which is comprised of the Prime Minister, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher which manages the Government’s pursuit of its most important political and economic objectives.  

So what’s special about a Cabinet sub-committee overseeing government communications activities?  Well, it puts an impenetrable cloak of secrecy around something that can and is often highly politically contentious – government advertising.  

Like governance, advertising ought to be dealt with openly. Government advertising is about informing the public, so there more than a little irony and a big dose of shameless political self-interest in Albanese establishing a Cabinet subcommittee to deal with it in complete secrecy.

In the absence of openness and evidence to the contrary, one can only assume that the government anticipates that its advertising decisions involving hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars would not stand public scrutiny.  

It’s an abuse of the cabinet convention and something that should be shut down. That’s unlikely to happen, and so it’s time for legislative moves to be made to protect democracy from distortion by an incumbent in government abusing taxpayer funded advertising.

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader and his website Transparency Warrior.

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