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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31614

Mr CREAN (10:03 AM) —The Labor Party support the requested amendment to Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2004-2005 and urge the House to agree to it. Whilst this is an amendment to the appropriation bill, we believe that the government should pick it up because of this disgraceful, wasteful advertising campaign that we are in the middle of at the moment. We are not suggesting, in terms of support for this amendment, that we would block the government's money bills. Only one party ever did that in this place, and they sit opposite. The current Prime Minister was a member of that government when it blocked supply to a previous Labor government. We do have to put a break on this wasteful government advertising. Their advertising is rampant. People see it on their TV screens. They are just being bombarded with it at the moment.

Mr CREAN —I will come to that in a minute. I do not say that governments should not be able to advertise. What I am saying is that, if they are going to advertise, they should do it in accordance with guidelines—guidelines which ensure that the information being conveyed in the advertisement is essential for people to gain knowledge. That is what the guidelines have got to do. I say to the member for Hume: we do not argue that governments should not be able to advertise; we are saying that we need guidelines to ensure there is probity, accountability and no wasteful expenditure by the government, as we are seeing at the moment.

We all know that families are hurting. They are asking why, if the economy is so good, they are missing out. One of the reasons they are missing out is that this government are into waste and mismanagement, and nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the advertising being undertaken by them. The sum of $123 million will be spent in government advertising between now and the election. It is nothing more than pre-election advertising at the public expense—to buy votes, to buy themselves out of trouble. Just think what $123 million could buy as an alternative. It could buy well in excess of four million bulk-billed visits. Don't you think the Australian public would be much better served if they could get greater access to doctors who bulk-bill rather than have the government waste their money on the nature of these campaigns?

Let us take two examples of the advertising that is being undertaken at the moment, because our argument is that this is not about communication. One TV advertising campaign on at the moment—and it is costing $16 million—is about Medicare. But the advertising campaign on TV does not tell Australian families that they have to apply for something to get the benefit of the safety net. You would think that, if there was a piece of information that the government were wanting to convey, it would be contained in the advertisement. It is not. That is a $16 million spend.

There is another campaign, at $20 million, for family benefits, where people do not have to apply for a thing. The $600 payment comes to them automatically. They do not need to apply. But what the advertisement does not tell them is that the $600 can be clawed back by the government in certain circumstances—people find themselves in a debt trap. Why aren't they told that important piece of information? So we have $16 million being spent on a campaign where people have to do something to get the benefits but are not told about it, and $20 million being spent on a campaign where people do not have to apply, because the money is paid automatically, but are not told of the clawback. The problem with this advertising is that there should be guidelines that require the information to be conveyed and that require the government to explain in advance the purpose of the advertising. Where people have to make a request, the Auditor-General should be able to say: `Why doesn't the ad contain the information? Why doesn't it tell them about the clawback?' That is essentially what this amendment is all about. (Extension of time granted)

The member for Hume asked a question about whether previous Labor governments advertised. Yes, they did. Of course they did. But let us look at the record on this. I would be pleased to table an extract from the Auditor-General's report which goes to the pattern of advertising by previous governments as well as by this government, and I seek leave to do so.

Leave granted.

Mr CREAN —This is the Auditor-General's report up until the 1998 election. The argument is that Labor used to undertake these campaigns. The very interesting demonstration from this table is that, yes, when a Labor government was last in office, it did in 1995 undertake a number of advertising campaigns. I was involved in one of them—the Working Nation program.

Mr Edwards —A good program.

Mr CREAN —It was a very good program. The advertisements were designed to tell employers that, amongst other things, they could get substantial subsidies if they were prepared to take on long-term unemployed people. As a result of that advertising, plus the campaign, we significantly reduced the number of long-term unemployed people. We actually got people connected with the work force, because employers, through the assistance that we advertised, were prepared to take them on.

The interesting thing when you look at that period—and I commend this to the member for Hume—is that Labor's advertising started to tail off very significantly in the middle of 1995. The election was not until the beginning of 1996. The pattern of advertising for information was there but not in the lead-up to an election, not just before the election was conducted. I urge the member for Hume to have a look at it. Contrast that with the 1998 election. There was a peak in the middle of the government's term but also a dramatic jump just before the 1998 election. That jump saw a spend of $32 million. Nothing that Labor advertised, in any peak, came anywhere near that. That is what the graph shows. But that was 1998—$32 million spent just before that election.

In 2001, before that election, the $32 million jumped to $66 million. As we have now established in the estimates, in the period between now and the next election—whenever that is—it will double again to $123 million. What sort of a gambling game is this—double you, see you, double you again—spending $32 million, $66 million, $123 million on advertising, all before you go to an election? It is all about vote buying, and nothing about information, nothing about informing people how they can benefit and what they can get from it.

Just to put it all into context, since this government was elected it has spent $780 million on advertising, and the concentration of that spend has all been around election times. Don't you think we need guidelines to oversee that? Don't you think we need some independent assessment as to whether this is an appropriate spend or a wasteful spend? Doesn't the parliament have the right to be able to say to the government of the day: `You can't do it. There is a better way to spend this money'? The fact is that, at the moment, 21 advertising campaigns in the media are either happening or in the pipeline. Last Sunday night, when I got home from this place relatively early, I turned on the TV and there must have been 10 ads during the movie. And they were not just on the one station: when you flicked the channels, they had lined them all up.

Dr Emerson —You could not get away from them.

Mr CREAN —You could not get away from these damned things!

Mr Slipper —They are good ads.

Mr CREAN —They are not good ads, because they do not convey information. They could have been good ads if you had complied with the guidelines. But you did not want to do that, because this is just a grubby exercise to try and buy yourself back into office. Not surprisingly, the great bulk of this advertising in June, July and August, that $123 million—

The SPEAKER —I remind the member for Hotham that he should address his remarks through the chair. Any reference to my buying myself back into office is a little uncomfortable in the present circumstances.

Mr CREAN(Extension of time granted) I know that you would have been as upset as me, Mr Speaker, when you saw them all bombarding your TV screen on Sunday night. In addition to the $123 million that the Senate identified in the estimates process, it also revealed the new campaigns to be rolled out. A further $8 million is going to be spent on the superannuation co-contribution piggy bank advertisements—more pork in the pig in terms of the advertising campaign. There is to be a campaign on philanthropy costing $2.7 million, and that is only the placement costs, as we understand it. There will be a Commonwealth regional information service campaign with booklet distribution, costing $2 million, pitched at rural Australia. Again, that only covers the placement costs. There will be a new campaign on national security costing almost $1 million.

To top it all off, just this week the Prime Minister signalled that the farcical `be alert, not alarmed' campaign is to be resurrected. Hopefully this time we will not get the fridge magnet. I hope they have learned and we will not get the fridge magnet again. But the `be alert, not alarmed' campaign is back. Why? Because they want to play to fear in the nation, not to hope or to our future. The government are in trouble and the only thing they know what to do with is fear and smear, and we have a campaign of extension to do it. The requested amendment that is before the House is about accountability, transparency and honesty—qualities all lacking in this government. John Howard, the Prime Minister, used to believe in this once upon a time.

Mr CREAN —You do not like hearing this. But this is what the Prime Minister had to say. I seek leave to table a press release in which he said:

... we will ask the Auditor-General—

Mr Ruddock —It is hypocritical.

Mr Edwards —What would you know about hypocritical?

Mr CREAN —I don't think they like this, Mr Speaker. They don't like this.

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Hotham has the call, and he is currently being denied the call solely by the actions of the member for Cowan.

Mr Edwards —Well, I'm helping him.

The SPEAKER —The member for Cowan is reflecting on the chair.

Mr CREAN —I always appreciate help from the member for Cowan. He is a great member and a great contributor in this place.

Mr Abbott —He didn't vote for you.

Mr CREAN —He did, actually. Back in 1995 the Prime Minister put out a press release calling for the guidelines. He said:

... we will ask the Auditor- General to draw up new guidelines ...

I would like to table that press release so that the House has another record of another broken promise by this Prime Minister.

The SPEAKER —The member for Hotham is seeking leave, I believe, to table the press release.

Mr Abbott —If it shuts him up, leave is granted.

Mr CREAN —You wish.

Leave granted.

Mr CREAN —The Prime Minister on many occasions made reference to the need to bring in the guidelines. That is what he said—not that he would rely on past practice but that he would introduce new guidelines. They have never been introduced or supported by him. He promised that he would ask the Auditor-General to draw up guidelines on what is an appropriate use of taxpayers' money in the area of advertising. More than eight years later the Auditor-General is still waiting for the call from the Prime Minister.

To his credit, after the taxpayer funded advertising campaign on the GST in 1998, the Auditor-General took on, on his own initiative, the task of drawing up some guidelines and issuing them. They are a very good start. Labor have consistently argued that they are a good start and what the government should base its principles around. The requested amendment which is before the House only requires that the government comply with the Auditor-General's guidelines on government advertising, to hold the government accountable. That is all the amendment does. What can be wrong with that? What can be wrong with a process that the Auditor-General has put forward, having given this issue scrutiny? What can be wrong with his conclusions and with the guidelines he has drawn up being adopted by this government? Labor have consistently called for the government to sign up to these guidelines. That is what this amendment does and that is why we are supporting it.

The Prime Minister has been asked a simple question in the House again this week: do the advertisements that the coalition are now bombarding the TV airwaves with comply with the guidelines? (Extension of time granted) He refused to answer that simple question. It is not about advertising; it is about advertising that meets the decent standards that are laid down. The government's pre-election advertising breaches good governance. It is not targeted. It does not inform people about what they really need. It is all about fixing a particular problem that the government has, a problem rooted in its tiredness, in its lack of vision and agenda. It is just about trying to win government. Political parties should not benefit from blatantly political advertising which uses taxpayer funded money. Blatant political advertising is what we want to stamp out. Governments that do it do it in breach of the guidelines and should have to pay. That is what we are saying. We want these guidelines implemented. That is what this amendment does and that is why Labor are supporting it. It goes to a test of honesty and integrity, and it goes to probity—something that this government has been sadly lacking in. I urge it to support the amendment.