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Advertising at arm's length

10 Jul 2007

Australians worried about misuse of government advertising might want to take a look at recent developments in Canada, writes FRED FLETCHER

PER CAPITA spending on government advertising in Australia is among the highest of the representative democracies. Until the most recent reforms, Canada was in the same league. But new regulations were established recently as part of the fall-out from the scandal known as Adscam, which led to a judicial inquiry that reported in 2006.

Advertising agencies and government officials had been involved between 1995 and 2001 in a variety of rorts that diverted taxpayers’ money to reward agencies that had supported the governing party and, in some cases, involved kick-backs to the then governing party.

The key reforms are intended make the system more transparent. An annual report on all government advertising, including contracts, expenditures and evaluations of effectiveness, and procurement rules that leave the major decisions in the hands of officials - keeping ministers and political staff at arm’s length from the process - are the most important new rules. These have only recently come into effect and only time will tell how well they work.

In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, after many years of complaining by opposition parties, the provincial parliament brought in new regulations in the Government Advertising Act 2004, largely a result of publicly funded advertising by the previous governing party that was widely seen as partisan.

The most important elements of the legislation are the requirements of prior approval by the auditor general before an advertisement can be broadcast or published and an explicit ban on partisan advertising by the government. These provisions came into force a little over a year ago and there has been little controversy to date, even though an election is expected this coming October.

The 2004 Act requires that all government ads must have a legitimate government purpose, such as informing the public of their rights and responsibilities or promoting the province of Ontario as a place to invest. The Ontario regulations stipulate that “an item is partisan if, in the opinion of the auditor general, a primary objective of the item is to promote the partisan political interests of the governing party.” More specifically, according to the Act, no ad may have as “a primary objective to foster a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity who is critical of the government.” The auditor general’s decision is final.

Openly partisan government advertising campaigns are not very common, however. Publicly funded advertisements that openly praised the governing party or criticised opponents would probably backfire. Government campaigns usually focus on “feel good” themes, selected in all probability by political communication consultants using polls and focus groups to try to play down negatives and draw attention to positives in the public image of the governing party. As the American expert, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, reminds us, television spots often create “arguments by association” and can convey both legitimate information and partisan impressions. From an Australian perspective, Professor Graeme Orr suggests that the amount and timing of government advertising counts for more than the explicit content. If that is the case, it might be wise to restrict government advertising for some specified pre-election period.

There is one kind of government advertising that particularly concerns us. Professor Orr raises, in his words, “the spectre of a government using taxpayer money to sell a legislative policy in advance of parliament having a chance to consider that policy.” The problem, which is becoming increasingly common in parliamentary democracies, is confusion between the government of the day and the governing party.

If the convention that government policies must first be announced in parliament were still observed, taxpayer funded advertising would at least be delayed until the proposed policy could be announced and, preferably, debated in a parliamentary setting. The argument is that the governing party is free to use its private resources to makes its case but, as government, it must defer to parliament and, preferably, have legislative authority for policy-oriented advertising.

In a remarkable coincidence, government advertising budgets in many jurisdictions tend to increase substantially in the fiscal year prior to an election. Most will agree that governments do need to communicate with citizens but governing parties should not be able to turn this need into an advantage of incumbency.

If and when the Australian political class decides that government advertising has become a problem that is eroding public confidence in the system, they could do worse that take a look at these Canadian experiments.

Fred Fletcher is a visiting professor at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, and University Professor Emeritus, York University Toronto Canada. This is an excerpt from a presentation on free and fair elections delivered at the Parliament of Victoria on 29 June.

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