On The Hill: Paying For It

On 26 June, the Australian National Audit Office, which just what its name says, released their report into government advertising for the period between August 2011 and March 2013.

Briefly, all government advertising tends not be lumped into the “illegitimate” heap, because it can play a role in informing the public about new policies (such as the digital switchover), or changes to existing arrangements. The issue begins when the government utilises its incumbency to hoover up public funds for self-serving political advertising.

You might remember the outrage over the Howard Government’s advertising on the issue of Work Choices among others, for example, drew criticism from all quarters, particularly on the estimated $2b total price tag for his long reign. Then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd was particularly scathing, saying, “Mr Howard can find on effectively government advertising paid for by the taxpayer to help his government’s re-election, but he can’t find $2 billion to fix our hospitals.”

The ANAO report found that much of Labor’s advertising too was guilty of dishonesty and money-wasting. On the Household Assistance Package, for example, while it significantly increased awareness, ANAO was critical of the fact that the campaign did not draw a clear link between the remuneration and the introduction of carbon pricing legislation.

The Agency was also critical of the campaign spending on Federal Government funding to Victorian hospitals, noting that the ads appeared in the context of a visible debate between the Victorian and the Federal Governments over the issue of hospital funding.

Of concern also was the Regional NBN campaign, which stood out for the fact that while marketing should have fallen under the scope of NBN Co, the Department of Broadband administered the campaign.

It is fortunate for the Government, then, that there will not be another audit report into government advertising before the next election, because the most recent round regarding the issue of asylum seekers is a strange one.

Tim Burrows, an advertising industry insider and writing for Mumbrella.com, noted the strange timeslots and mediums of this campaign, essentially calling the Rudd Government out for something which Mr Rudd had condemned six years earlier.

“Your average asylum seeker doesn’t buy Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph in Indonesia,” said Mr Burrows. “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.”

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this exercise: Either the Government’s ad agency, which Mr Burrows says enjoys an excellent reputation, is grossly incompetent; or the target audience is not asylum seekers.

If the target audience is not asylum seekers, then it must be Australian voters, and it seems a bit too fortuitous that an election is rounding the corner with asylum seekers one of the major issue for the mush-brained swing voters.

Nick Xenophon has already lodged a complaint with the Auditor-General over the issue, saying, “Over the years, both sides of politics have used taxpayer money as a cheap way of funding their parties’ ads. This campaign is one of the most blatant examples of this.”

So the challenge is this, for the partisan-players at home: When your team does this, you call them out as loudly as you would have if the other team did.

It is a terrible indictment on the voters (at least the swing voters), that with all of the policy choices they are offered, they are moved by stopping a small handful of people from entering Australia, people they will likely never meet, nor feel the presence of.