PAUL MURRAY: Why are governments allowed to spend millions of your dollars just to spruik themselves?

Paul Murray
The Nightly
What possible reason — and justification — could a government have for spending truckloads of public money to tell wage earners they are getting a tax cut?
What possible reason — and justification — could a government have for spending truckloads of public money to tell wage earners they are getting a tax cut? Credit: Supplied, The Nightly

What possible reason — and justification — could a government have for spending truckloads of public money to tell wage earners they are getting a tax cut?

Is it really worth Anthony Albanese blowing $40 million of your money to inform you about something you already know and which has been endlessly detailed in the media?

Let’s go to the justification first. If government advertising is ever needed, most people might agree it should serve an important purpose, like public safety.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

No justification exists here. Taxpayers are not required to do anything to get the tax cut. It arrives in their wages after July 1.

As for the reason, it’s pretty obvious. The psychological response sought is gratitude. Oh, and an election is possibly just around the corner. So, a vote, too?

But should you be paying for the Albanese Government’s re-election campaign? Isn’t that why people donate to the Labor Party?

This is the text of an advertisement being run on a loop by commercial radio stations telling every wage earner with access to newspapers, free-to-air television, social media — or even gossiping workmates around an office coffee machine — what they already know:

“We’ve all been feeling cost-of-living pressures. That’s why the Australian Government is bringing in tax cuts from the 1st of July.

“They’re for the drivers delivering the veggies and the people buying them; for the people working in offices and the tradespeople building them; for nurses saving lives and the teachers shaping them.

“They’re tax cuts for every taxpayer. Visit taxcuts.gov.au to find out how the 1st of July tax cuts will benefit you. Authorised by the Australian Government, Canberra.”

Thanks Albo. Thanks, Jim. Good to know you feel the cost of living pinch, too. We’re grateful that you are giving us back a bit more of our money.

No one is actually intended to visit that website. It just validates the fuzzy message. You could Google the information it contains for free.

Can any of the Labor diehards who earnestly read my columns put hands on hearts and honestly say that radio ad is anything other than feelgood political spin?

It serves no useful public purpose. But $40m could build about 250 affordable housing rental units to Federal standards.

According to the Daily Telegraph this week, it’s just one part of a $172m pre-election spend on a wide range of government “campaigns,” many of which promote green sentiments.

That outlay would nearly buy a private jet for the Prime Minister. But he’s bought a new one already. Two, in fact.

And why rely on possibly reluctant political donors to fund an election campaign when the taxpayer is at stake?

Make no mistake. All governments indulge in this form of corruption to a lesser or greater extent. But who is in the taxpayers’ corner, calling out the misspending?

WA Auditor-General Caroline Spencer sagely labels advertising campaigns as an area of “perennial temptation for governments”.

Two weeks ago, she released a report after reviewing a sample of 11 McGowan government advertising campaigns by five different agencies from June 2019 to December 2022.

That’s just 11 among possibly hundreds that remain unaudited. Just scratching the surface still costs $610,000.

The report uncovered “examples of non-compliance that demonstrate how campaign advertising can cross the line from appropriately focusing on public information into areas that are politically advantageous to the government of the day”.

“Government campaign advertising can attract criticism or erode public confidence if or when perceived to have been used for political purposes or failing to provide value for money,” the report says.

“Indeed, the politicisation of government advertising is a key risk and is the reason why there are restrictions and some form of oversight on the nature and format of advertising by governments in jurisdictions across Australia.”

Spencer found that over the period, state Government entities spent at least $205 million on buying television, radio, print, social media, and other online digital platforms for their campaigns.

That amount of money would put a big dent in WA’s record elective surgery waiting list, for example.

The churlish pushback against the report from Premier Roger Cook’s own department, the top bureaucracy in a government that is increasingly at odds with the independent Auditor-General, did it no credit. More on that later.

But back to the Albanese Government’s tax cuts propaganda, which really needed scrutiny from someone like Spencer.

Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese. Credit: Bianca De Marchi/AAP

The relevant Federal watchdog gave the campaign the green light in advance without seeing or hearing the actual advertising material. A classic box-ticking exercise.

On May 8, Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy issued a statement deeming the campaign complied with all the appropriate guidelines: “This certification takes into consideration the letter issued by the Independent Communications Committee.

“It also takes into consideration advice and evidence provided by officials within Treasury with responsibility for the design, development and implementation of the tax cuts campaign and advice provided by the Treasury’s law division.”

So, did Treasury officials come up with the awesome line about “drivers delivering the veggies”? Now we know what economics degrees are for.

But what about the “independent” committee’s role? All three members are government-appointed public sector comms types from within the political bubble. So part of the problem, really.

They met Treasury officials to consider the campaign under development and signed off on it on April 9 as complying with the “Australian Government Guidelines on Information and Advertising Campaigns by non-corporate Commonwealth entities”.

But. There was one glaring omission in the ICC’s advice to Kennedy:

“The committee has concluded the proposed tax cuts campaign is capable of complying with principles 1 to 4 of the guidelines, noting this view has been formed at the communication strategy stage, and the committee has not considered the advertising materials.”

So the campaign is “capable” of complying, but they don’t say whether the actual ads do.

If this is the extent of the safeguards against taxpayer funds being spent wrongly on political campaigns, it is hardly reassuring. Which is why we need truly independent auditors.

“Government advertising campaigns can be a vital tool in providing the public with important information,” Spencer’s report said, with a supposed emphasis on “can”. Many are just junk, whether partisan or not.

“Advertising can also carry a risk of misuse if campaigns promote the government of the day, which is not an appropriate way to spend public money.

“This audit is a timely reminder of not only why vitally important principles, often further specified in rules, exist to guide the spending of public money on government advertising, but also the important role public servants play in ensuring they are upheld.”

Memo to Canberra’s Independent Communications Committee: Read this report. Copy to Steven Kennedy.

Spencer’s report notes that the Auditor-General’s office conducted a similar review in 2014: “Despite my office finding 10 years ago that the total cost of government campaign advertising is not known, there has been no improvement in this area.

“This limits transparency and makes it harder for Parliament and the public to judge whether advertising campaigns represent value for money.”

The report shows that, in large part, for the 11 campaigns reviewed, the government entities involved followed the rules — except when they didn’t:

None of the 11 fully complied with all guidelines. Two did not meet the standard for being apolitical.

Strangely, the total number of these government campaigns is unknown, and the audit attempted no estimate. It noted that virtually none are evaluated for effectiveness.

Government media buying costs remained stable until 2020, but they have increased 66 per cent since then.

“The pattern that we reported in 2014 for media spending to increase in the year before an election has persisted,” the report says.

Spencer found that one inherent weakness in the system was “the potential conflict of interest from the Department of Premier and Cabinet’s increased role in the management of government campaigns”.

As I have noted in several previous columns, the Auditor-General’s office has been under sustained attack from Labor, which rankles under any scrutiny.

In its aggressive response to Spencer’s advertising report, the DPC said “some of the audit’s findings are inaccurate”.

However, anyone who pursues the department’s argument supporting that rebuff will struggle to conclude that the Auditor-General’s office made any mistakes.

It appears that Spencer has not been forgiven for publicly battling against the Labor Government’s attempts to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to neuter her powers. She briefed top legal counsel Chris Shanahan to take them on.

Spencer argued Labor’s push would “diminish the discretion of the Auditor-General to report in the public interest, which is inconsistent with the overarching independence provisions in the existing Act”.

Responding to the DPC’s pushback to her latest report, she was diplomatic: “This kind of disagreement is unusual and unfortunate.”

But very revealing. Like the face on a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Comments

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 22-07-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 22 July 202422 July 2024

Desperate Democrats look to comeback queen Harris.