Public Sector Informant: When is it OK for governments to use public funds for advertising campaigns?

Rumours keep circulating that 2021 may be an election year. In spite of his denials, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, is said to be going to the polls a year early in order to cash in on his COVID-based popularity. In all likelihood, Morrison will go the full term, following his mentor, John Howard who believed that the average Australian voter would react badly to such self-serving opportunism. In the meantime, a bit of media speculation helps to keep the opposition off-balance and party members on their toes.

As for the government itself, choice of a date will make little substantial difference to its priorities. Like all modern governments, it conducts a more or less continuous election campaign with constant attention to positive messaging backed by marketing research. Shifting to formal campaign mode involves less adjustment for ministers than for public servants.

One feature of the constant electioneering is the abuse of taxpayer-funded advertising to help create a positive image of the government. Over the summer, voters have been subjected to a major advertising blitz, on television, radio and in the print media, celebrating the government's economic recovery plan, under the banner of "Our Comeback" ("This is Australia. We will come back. The government has a plan").

The catchy language came from market researchers employed by Treasury at the cost of more than one million dollars. At Senate estimates, opposition senators typically focused on the narrow partisan point of that the marketing contracts had been awarded to firms with known Liberal connections. They also queried why Treasury, whose function is to advise the government on economic policy, was devoting such extensive resources to market surveys and focus groups. As Treasury officials made clear, however, preliminary marketing research is an essential and required part of all government advertising campaigns. The more important question is why Treasury should be embarking on such propaganda campaigns in the first place.

Ministers have plenty of opportunities to outline and defend their policies through parliament and the media, including the staged photo opportunities which the press gallery is obliged to cover. If governments want to win further partisan approval they can pay for political advertising out of party funds. Government-funded advertisements should be confined to matters where there is a genuine public-interest case. One such category is where there is clear need to convey objective information that the public might not otherwise have, for example details of how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Such advertising is a form of the traditional public notice. Secondly, government funds can be justifiably used for campaigns aimed at changing attitudes on widely recognised social problems such as smoking, dangerous driving or domestic violence. The Health Department is currently developing a similar campaign to encourage anti-COVID vaccination.

The federal government's 'Our Comeback' advertising campaign. Picture: Supplied

The federal government's 'Our Comeback' advertising campaign. Picture: Supplied

But campaigns exhorting the value of general government policies, such as the series of Treasury-backed advertisements on the government's economic program, do not count as either genuinely useful information or uncontroversial public education. While ministers might argue that boosting economic confidence is in the national interest, the emphasis on the government's positive role ('the government has a plan') indicates that the main purpose is to make the government itself appear in a good light and so increase its electoral popularity.

The continuing scandal surrounding the use of taxpayer funds to pay for pro-government propaganda is compounded by the fact that it contravenes explicit regulations banning such expenditure. The Commonwealth Guidelines on Information and Advertising Campaigns by non-corporate Commonwealth entities apply to advertising campaigns valued at more than $250,000. They accept that the government may legitimately advertise to explain government policies, to inform the public, to encourage informed consideration of issues or to change behaviour. However, campaigns "must not be conducted for party political purposes".

An Independent Communications Committee (the ICC) is required to vet each proposed campaign to make sure that it complies with the guidelines. However, the ICC's oversight is seriously deficient. In particular, the committee examines proposals only, not the finished product. Its assessments always take the form that the proposed campaign "is capable of complying" with the guidelines, leaving the final decisions with the agency.

Moreover, the interpretation of "not for party political purposes" employed by the ICC and the relevant agencies is "the absence of party political material". As Treasury officials explained, this simply means avoiding "government slogans or reference to political parties". But this minimalist approach leaves room for many other types of persuasive communication, including emotive language ("our comeback", "this is Australia" etc) and stirring music, which the ICC never bothers with. While the guidelines may prevent the most direct forms of political advertising, such as found in advertisements paid for by political parties, there is still ample scope for creating a positive image of the governing party.

The ICC, as present constituted, is a dishonest fig leaf, designed to give the appearance of objectivity and political neutrality but still allowing plenty of scope for party propaganda. This hypocrisy is an open secret among politicians and senior bureaucrats. The Auditor-General has repeatedly asked the Department of Finance to overhaul the process but to no avail. As with the various community grants programs (sports grants), Finance and its ministers are content with rules that exclude only the most glaring abuses, leaving governments free to go on misusing taxpayer funds for partisan purposes.

  • Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. richard.mulgan@anu.edu.au.
This story When is it OK to use public funds for advertising campaigns? first appeared on The Canberra Times.