Canberra’s latest campaign underlines the need for controls over government advertising, according to Graeme Orr and Joo-Cheong Tham
IMAGINE you had a product and were pushing it in the marketplace against a bigger competitor. Then the federal government shelled out $20 million in taxpayer’s money to advertise your competitor’s product, even though it was still on the drawing board. You’d be forgiven for wondering what happened to the fair marketplace of ideas, let alone the principle that scarce public funds be directed to areas of social or national need.
Yet this, in effect, is what the government began to do last week when it launched an advertising blitz to promote its industrial relations proposals in the face of union and community opposition. This move tells us much about the present decay of fairness and equality as principles underlying both industrial relations and political competition.
The Australian constitution enshrined a mechanism to balance the interests of workers and businesses. That was conciliation and arbitration - a form of collective bargaining with resort to a neutral umpire. The mechanism was extended by the Keating government to cover collective bargaining at workplace level. The ‘founding fathers’ also guaranteed the existence of state and federal systems of industrial relations.
The Howard-Andrews proposals are controversial because they threaten both genuine collective bargaining and the state systems. The government will intervene directly in industrial regulation, rather than leaving it to the parties and the commissions.
Beyond industrial relations, however, the government’s misuse of its seemingly endless advertising budget raises even greater concerns for the ideal of political equality. The unequal use of public funds to promote partisan interests and engage in controversial politicking is something we ought associate only with dictatorships or with democracies, like Russia, still emerging from totalitarian cultures. In a country like Australia, the principle of competitive neutrality should apply to the expenditure of government monies.
But the misuse of public funds to promote governments has become a feature in Australia, at both state and federal level, practised by both Labor and Liberals. We live in an age of government by PR, and have done so at least since Joh Bjelke-Petersen refined the art of media management and funded pseudo-documentary TV programmes like Queeensland Unlimited.
Such expenditure is a rort of incumbency, and may go some way to explaining why governments are so easily re-elected in Australia. Since 1970, there have been 97 elections and only 31 have produced changes in the party in power. In other words, the average administration enjoys three terms - a situation that is even more static in the ‘big house’ in Canberra.
Governments use our money to soft-soap us. They do it to promote briberous handouts in election years. And in non-election years they use it, in a kind of permanent campaign, to quell opposition to unpopular proposals.
The current federal government has form in this regard. It has spent over $1 billion on advertising since being elected. Most perniciously, the expenditure has spiked in the lead-up to elections. Prior to the 2004 campaign it spent in the order of $150 million. These outlays undermine the principle of political equality at the heart of our electoral system, the principle which underlies the scheme of partial electoral funding, where about $2 per vote goes to the party which earns that vote.
Who can forget the drip-torture of the ‘unchain your hearts’ GST ads, or the ‘strengthening Medicare’ campaigns? Yet at least the tax campaign could be defended on the grounds that promoting trust is part of the fair and efficient operation of a self-assessment regime. And the Medicare campaign at least promoted new, legislated rights.
But the industrial relations ads fail even the most minimal test of propriety, namely that government advertising should provide only dispassionate information about rights and obligations. The ads fail to reveal that workers and unions will lose both procedural and substantive protections. They promote a partisan policy that goes to the heart of the political divide that traditionally underlies our two party system. (Indeed, the ads were rushed forward explicitly to counteract a campaign by unions).
Worst of all, they usurp the democratic process by presuming that parliament will rubber stamp the government’s plan. How can the government be informing us of rights and obligations before there is either detail or legal force to its plan?
The eclipsing of ethics and blurring of the lines between party and state are reinforced by the fact that the government has enlisted Andrew Robb MHR to coordinate its response. Robb’s credentials are not that he is a mere fresher backbencher, but that he is a recent federal director of the Liberal Party.
As if to prove that abuse of public monies begets abuse of public monies, it is now reported that at least one Labor state government is providing assistance to union rallies opposing the changes. The logical extension of this is that the state governments will pool taxpayer money to find $20 million to retaliate against the federal government campaign.
This might seem attractive to some: after all, the changes go to the heart of federal-state legislative powers, so perhaps, like a referendum, we should have government funded campaigns ‘for’ and ‘against’. But that is short-sighted. What of issues where there is no federal-state dimension, or in times where one party controls both levels of government?
The federal government has refused, for some years, to implement even mild auditor-general recommendations to limit the politicisation of the government advertising budget. Instead, drawing on a dubious Labor precedent, it refuses any independent scrutiny of such expenditure, keeping control in a politicised committee within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
As opposition leader, Mark Latham proposed independent review of such campaigns after an election. The cost of partisan ads would be deducted from public funding. The proposal had, at its heart, a simple element of corrective justice; but it missed the point that these campaigns are not undertaken in isolation, but as part of a total campaign to buy votes and mollify opposition. (One corrective to this would be for parliament simply to limit the amount of government advertising each year, thereby limiting the discretion that exists for its misuse.) The Latham proposal, in deducting misspent monies after the event, would also probably not deter a desperate government.
There are a variety of proposals for both some accountability for, and restrictions on, government advertising campaigns. A Senate Committee was to report on the issue in June. But it has now been given an extension until November - that is, when the government controls the Senate. Expect no change to the current free-for-all.
Let political parties advertise their policies by all means: but with their own money. The Liberal-National coalition, after all, recently received $21 million in public funding from the 2004 election. And are business groups too short-armed or long-pocketed to help stump up the bill?
Some Australians retain their bullshit-detectors, and will cynically shrug off any advertising blitzes tagged ‘Authorised by the Australian Government, Canberra’. But for many others, the intended message will soak in, namely that the Government Brand (for which, read, the Government of the Day) is on their side.
In any event, the cynicism that is otherwise required to filter out such publicly funded public relations is corrosive in itself. And what will the government do when that cynicism becomes unmanageable? What else but a government advertising campaign promoting cuddly, public-spirited politicians. •
Dr Graeme Orr is a senior lecturer in law at Griffith University. Joo-Cheong Tham is a lecturer in law at Melbourne University and a committee member of Liberty Victoria.
Photo: Jack Tzekov/ iStockphoto.com