Campaigning by stealth
As the unnamed election date draws nearer and camera crews begin staking out the road to Yarralumla, voters could be forgiven for already feeling campaign fatigue.
In recent weeks they have endured a barrage of ads promoting government messages, from ads warning prospective asylum seekers they will never live in Australia if they come by boat, to ads spruiking DisabilityCare and Labor's plans for schools and jobs. But unlike the more nakedly political ads that will proliferate when the campaign proper gets under way, these ads are being charged to the taxpayer.
"If you're an ordinary punter looking at those ads, it's quite clearly political advertising and should properly be paid for by the ALP," says the Coalition spokeswoman on government advertising, Bronwyn Bishop. "But the problem is, the ALP was skint for money."
Of course, this is not the first time we've seen a spike in government advertising in the lead-up an election. An Australian National Audit Office report issued in June showed that in the months leading up to each federal election since 1990 (with the exception of 2001), government advertising spending has increased. The Howard government holds the dubious distinction of the greatest lift in ad spending in an election year. In the nine months before the 2007 poll, it spent an average of $29 million a month on advertising, 86 per cent higher than its monthly average between elections.
"History ... shows that it has been challenging for governments to exercise restraint in spending on advertising campaigns in the lead-up to elections," Auditor-General Ian McPhee noted this week. McPhee knows the issue better than most. When Kevin Rudd was opposition leader in 2007, he promised to give McPhee the job of vetting government advertising, but in 2010 Rudd was sidelined and the job was given to the so-called Independent Communications Committee, consisting of three retired public servants.
Rudd provided that ad campaigns could be exempted from the scrutiny of the committee in cases of "national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reasons". His government invoked this exemption in 2010 for ads countering the mining industry's campaign against the mining tax, and again in July this year for ads publicising its policy change on asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Special Minister of State Mark Dreyfus defended the exemption, reasoning the message needed to be conveyed immediately to potential asylum seekers. He said the ads had been placed in Australian media outlets because one of the most effective ways to convey the message on asylum seekers was through migrant communities in Australia. This prompted derision from independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who quipped the ads were aimed at "vote people", not "boat people".
Tim Burrowes, editor-in-chief of marketing and media website Mumbrella, called the boat campaign a "disgrace".
"Your average asylum seeker doesn't buy Sydney's The Daily Telegraph in Indonesia. Any peripheral reach of the ad into diaspora communities within Australia would make this one of the most inefficient and badly targeted media buys of all time," he wrote.
The poor targeting charge has also been levelled at the advertising campaign for DisabilityCare. The Independent Communication Committee questioned why the ads should run in Western Australia when that state had not signed up to the scheme. Families department secretary Finn Pratt said the scheme would affect all Australians who would contribute to the scheme through the Medicare levy - but the ads do not mention the levy.
Coalition disabilities spokesman Mitch Fifield said while some advertising was justified, in this instance it should have been aimed at areas where the scheme was launched and it should have had detailed information about eligibility.
Dreyfus said when Labor came to office in 2007, the system of government advertising had "next to no independent oversight and no integrity". He said Labor had reduced costs and introduced guidelines requiring that ads be objective, justified, cost-effective and not directed at promoting party political interests.
Xenophon is promising to introduce a bill that would introduce civil and criminal penalties for ministers who abused the system.
For the Coalition's part, Bishop says its intention would be to reduce ad spending, but she would not say how a Coalition government would manage the issue.
■ Asylum seekers up to $30 million in Australia and up to $7 million overseas
■ Better schools $21 million
■ DisabilityCare Australia $22 million
■ Plan for Australian jobs $10 million
■ Medicare $10 million
■ Childcare assistance $8 million
■ NBN $5 million
SOURCES: 2013-14 BUDGET PAPERS, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL AUDIT OFFICE