Successive Australian governments have maintained a framework to regulate the use of campaign advertising by selected government entities. The overarching aim of the framework introduced in 2008 is to provide the Parliament and the community with confidence that public funds are used to meet the genuine information needs of the community. The current framework provides that the ‘underlying principles governing the use of public funds’ for all government information and advertising campaigns are that:
- members of the public have equal rights to access comprehensive information about government policies, programs and services which affect their entitlements, rights and obligations;
- governments may legitimately use public funds to explain government policies, programs or services, to inform members of the public of their obligations, rights and entitlements, to encourage informed consideration of issues or to change behaviour; and
- government campaigns must not be conducted for party political purposes.
Since 2008, key confidence-building features of the framework have included principles-based guidelines, and a process for entity chief executives to certify the compliance of campaigns against these principles. In certifying campaigns, chief executives have also been supported by third-party advice for most of the period since 2008. The five ‘information and advertising campaign principles’ included in the most recent (2014) iteration of the guidelines are:
- Principle 1: Campaigns should be relevant to government responsibilities.
- Principle 2: Campaigns should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign.
- Principle 3: Campaigns should be objective and not directed at promoting party political interests.
- Principle 4: Campaigns should be justified and undertaken in an efficient, effective and relevant manner.
- Principle 5: Campaigns must comply with legal requirements and procurement policies and procedures
Between 2010–11 and 2017–18, average Australian Government expenditure each financial year on advertising campaigns was $210 million (adjusted for inflation). This expenditure included media placement, communications suppliers and GST, but did not include administrative costs.
The rationale for undertaking this audit is to provide the Parliament with assurance as to whether the campaign advertising framework and its implementation provide public confidence in the administration of taxpayer-funded advertising, as expected when the framework was introduced a decade ago. The audit has been conducted in a context where aspects of the framework are not as rigorous as arrangements applying in other jurisdictions and there has been a general weakening of the framework over time.
The objective of the audit is to assess the effectiveness of the Department of Finance’s and selected entities’ implementation of the Australian Government’s campaign advertising framework.
To form a conclusion against this objective, the following high-level criteria apply:
- Does the Department of Finance effectively administer the Australian Government’s campaign advertising framework?
- Were selected campaigns compliant with the Australian Government’s campaign advertising framework?
The Australian Government’s campaign advertising framework was introduced in 2008 with the express purpose of providing confidence that taxpayer funded campaigns are legitimately authorised, properly targeted and non-political. A decade on, this area of government administration remains contested, with an ongoing focus on the discretion inherent in the framework and the long-term trend of increased campaign expenditure before elections. The persistence of debate over the use of public resources for certain government campaigns indicates that the framework has not achieved its primary purpose of building confidence and is therefore ineffective in respect to this outcome. In these circumstances, there would be merit in the Parliament and Australian Government revisiting the framework. This audit report includes recommendations aimed at improving both the selected entities’ administration and the framework’s transparency. The recommendations reflect the findings of this audit and four previous ANAO audits conducted since the framework’s introduction. Framework-level recommendations focus on: clarifying mandatory requirements to reduce the large measure of discretion which is a feature of the framework; strengthening the third-party compliance advisory function to enable it to review campaigns at any stage of development; improving the transparency of approved campaign budgets and annual expenditure reporting; and applying certification processes to media releases associated with launching a campaign.