By Tom Dusevic, originally published on October 22 in The Australian.
You can get it readin’. You can get it drivin’. You can get it scrollin’ your social feed. In 2020, a big, big government is running a big, big advertising campaign.
Since April, the Morrison government has launched $135m of new taxpayer-funded advertising to carry COVID-19 health, income support and social services messaging, most of which has been exempted from independent review.
The splurge will see the Coalition post a record for media spending in a non-election year estimated to be between $190m and $200m, a 50 per cent jump on its media buy last year.
Campaign development costs, such as creative services and market research, add another one-third to the bill, implying a consolidated advertising spend this year of about $270m.
Probity experts warn that exemptions granted during the pandemic threaten to undermine an already-weak model of accountability on government advertising.
In a bleak year for the industry, government campaign spending has come to the rescue. According to the Standard Media Index, which monitors advertising spending, federal and state government outlays on media increased by 25 per cent in the September quarter, compared with a year earlier.
As the Morrison government’s pandemic budget blitz hits $670bn, or 35 per cent of national output, more media spending is due to be disclosed, revealing the cost of Treasury’s new Economic Recovery Plan campaign and an imminent Department of Education, Skills and Employment JobTrainer campaign.
Yet in a significant departure, the bulk of COVID-related media spending has been exempted from oversight by the Independent Communications Committee, a three-person panel that vets campaigns before they are launched.
In his capacity as Special Minister of State, Mathias Cormann wrote to parliament in March and April to exempt the Department of Health and Treasury from rules to guard against misuse of funds for political advertising.
In three campaign phases, Treasury has spent $40m explaining income support for employers and employees, while Health has spent more than $70m on campaigns about COVID-19 and prevention measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
In both cases, Senator Cormann exempted campaigns on the grounds of “extreme urgency”.
Exemptions from advertising rules are rare but can be made during national emergencies.
Joo-Cheong Tham, professor at Melbourne Law School, says the Morrison government has “diminished accountability for government advertising in the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what is necessary … Whilst these exemptions may have been justified in the early months of the pandemic, they are no longer defensible.
“Their open-endedness means that these exemptions might continue to operate into the campaign period of the next federal election,” he told The Australian.
In the days after the October 6 budget, The Australian asked Treasury and Josh Frydenberg’s office whether new campaigns would be conducted for measures in the budget, such as changes to business and personal income taxation and hiring credit.
Neither the Treasury nor Treasurer’s office would confirm a campaign was planned. Yet the Economic Recovery Plan campaign was reviewed by the ICC on September 30, a week before the budget.
In an October 6 letter to Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy, ICC chair Andrew Blyth said the committee was satisfied the proposed campaign was relevant to government responsibilities and in line with three other principles for certification.
“The committee was also reassured by the department the language in the campaign’s creative materials would be managed to remain clearly distinguishable from party political material,” he wrote.
According to the Department of Finance, campaign advertising media expenditure by non-corporate commonwealth entities in 2019-20 was $128m.
Final figures for the current calendar and financial years will be disclosed in late 2021.
Available figures suggest campaign media spending was $135m in 2019, with $102m spent ahead of the May 18 election.
The record for media spending was the Howard government’s $254m in 2007, including its Work Choices campaign. Ahead of the November 2007 poll, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd said taxpayer-funded advertising was “a cancer on democracy”.
After winning office, Labor improved disclosure rules and vetting of campaigns.
Yet incumbents have since ramped up taxpayer-funded advertising in pre-election periods. In the run-up to the September 2013 election, Scott Morrison called Labor’s media spending “outrageous”. Taxpayer-funded media surged ahead of the 2016 and 2019 polls.
“There has been a persistence of a weak model of accountability based on government guidelines and inadequate controls over pre-election advertising,” Professor Tham said.
In a report in August last year, the Auditor-General questioned the value for taxpayers and the accuracy of information in the Coalition’s Powering Forward energy campaign and called for reform of the vetting system. “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,” he found.
According to a spokesman, the government “conducts information campaigns to inform the community about the availability of new policies, programs and services. It is important the broad range of assistance provided in the budget, including important job-creating initiatives, are communicated so individuals and businesses know when and how they can benefit.”
Ben Willee, general manager of Spinach, a Melbourne creative agency, believes COVID-era ads have fallen short of creative and research standards: “Both federal and state governments have gone outside their usual processes to execute campaigns quickly.”