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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3499

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:36 PM) —I present the explanatory memorandum and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Preventing the Misuse of Government Advertising Bill 2010 will address the growing public concern around government expenditure on advertising campaigns which have electoral or party political content. History shows that the use of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds for advertising campaigns which are clearly political in nature has been adopted practice of governments of both political persuasions. This Bill will ensure that governments in the future will be constrained by legislation to comply with an accountability framework when seeking to deliver advertising campaigns in excess of $250,000.

Criticism of the use of government advertising for allegedly political purposes goes back to at least as far as the early 1990s. In her 2004 book The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Advertising Dr Sally Young notes that in 1993, the Coalition attacked the Keating government’s $3.5 million Medicare advertising campaign as ‘blatant electioneering’ and ‘ALP propaganda’. It is well documented that there is a ‘spike’ in government advertising in the pre-election period.   A report from the National Audit Office in 1998 noted that pre-election ‘spikes’ in government campaign advertising expenditure before the 1990, 1993, 1996 and 1998 federal elections.  

In 1998 the Auditor-General developed advertising guidelines in the wake of widespread criticism of the Howard government’s tax advertising campaign which was screened just before the federal election campaign. The Howard government ignored those guidelines for a decade and continued the practice of using public funds for government advertising campaigns which were generally agreed to contain party political content.   The Rudd government came to power after the 2007 federal election with a strong commitment to address this ‘long term cancer on our democracy’. However, the recent controversy over the government’s decision to spend $38.5 million on an advertising campaign to explain the new mining tax proposal highlights the need to address this important issue in legislation.

The Bill establishes a framework for accountability of expenditure on government information and advertising campaigns. It sets out a process for all campaigns with a budget in excess of $250,000, which provides for comprehensive and continuous review of these campaigns by the Auditor-General, and a full transparency and reporting mechanism by the relevant Minister and the Auditor-General to allow scrutiny of the parliament.

The Auditor-General will assess and review the information and advertising campaign against the Guidelines set out in the Schedule of the Bill. The Schedule outlines the principles and guidelines to govern the expenditure, material, implementation and delivery of campaigns. The Guidelines are based on those issues by the Department of Finance and Deregulation in July 2008 and incorporate key recommendations made by the Auditor-General in the review of the guidelines conducted this year.

The Guidelines set out provisions for the development of material to meet specific objectives including the requirement for material to be relevant to government responsibilities; to be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner; to be produced and distributed in an efficient, effective and relevant manner, with due regard to accountability; to comply with legal requirement and that material must not be directed at promoting party political interests.

Most importantly, the Bill ensures that only information and advertising campaigns related to national emergencies can be exempted from the accountability process. In that case, the Minister can seek an exemption for compliance with the guidelines from the Cabinet Secretary to undertake an advertising campaign. However, there is a provision that the exemption expires when the national emergency ends and that, as soon as practicable after the exemption is granted, the Minister must seek a review of the campaign by the Auditor-General.

This provision removes all room for subjective interpretation and political expediency in the exercise of exemptions from compliance. The current guidelines which allow exemptions on the basis of ‘a national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reason’ allows broad interpretation which demonstrably results in campaign which breach the clear and stated intention. This Bill closes that loophole.

Further it provides a legislated process for the revision of the guidelines governing government advertising campaigns. Previously, government has been at liberty to ignore the guidelines or to adapt and change them at their will. Under this Bill the guidelines can only be revised by regulations following a process of public consultation. This makes sure that the revision process and the changes themselves are subject to public and parliamentary input and approval.

The Bill places the Auditor-General in a key position to assess, review and report on each advertising campaign over $250,000 to ensure it complies with the guidelines. The Auditor-General will provide reports to the Minster and to the parliament on each campaign and while the Minister retains ultimate responsibility for the approval or rejection of a campaign, the transparency of the process will ensure that the Australian public are fully informed of review and decision-making processes.

The Bill removes the temptation for governments of all persuasions to bend the rules to meet their immediate political needs. It is time that the public interest is given priority on this important issue. This Bill enshrines a framework for accountability of government expenditure on information and advertising campaigns so that they are no longer subject to the whims and vagaries of politics.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.

Senator BOB BROWN —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.