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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3271

Senator RONALDSON (5:11 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I rise to speak on the ministerial statement by the Special Minister of State ‘Administration: Approval of exemption to guidelines on information and campaign advertising by Australian government departments and agencies’. Over the last month we have seen unsurpassed grubbiness by this government in relation to government advertising. I am referring to the exemption given by Senator Ludwig to the Treasurer in relation to the advertising on the great big mining tax and all the implications of that.

I want to take the chamber through some comments that were made by the Prime Minister prior to the last election and put those into context. In October 2007, prior to the federal election, the Prime Minister said that government advertising was:

… a sick cancer within our system. It’s a cancer on democracy.

The complete and utter hollowness of those words will become clearly obvious in due course. I will go through some of the ALP’s platform in 2007 under item 54. It said:

54. Labor will not support the use of government advertising for political purposes. Labor will introduce legislation to ensure:

  • government advertising campaigns only occur after government policy has been legislated for by parliament;

What advertisements are running today, and were running yesterday, on national television in relation to the NBN? Has the NBN been legislated? No, it has not. That is a broken core promise from this Prime Minister. It goes on:

  • all government advertising and information campaigns provide objective, factual and explanatory information, free from partisan promotion of government policy and political argument ...
  • all advertising campaigns in excess of $250,000 are examined by the Public Service Commissioner—

which has subsequently changed to the Auditor-General. These promises were broken. Further, in November 2007 the Prime Minister, at a doorstop, said:

I can guarantee that we will have a process in place, run by the Auditor General ... In terms of establishing the office of the Auditor General with clear cut guidelines to whom every television campaign is submitted for approval before that television campaign is implemented, you have my 100% guarantee that that will occur ... and each one of you here can hold me accountable for that.

In July 2008 the government introduced new guidelines for government advertising. The Special Minister of State’s press release said:

In 2007, Kevin Rudd made an election promise that campaigns over $250,000 would be scrutinised by the Auditor-General.

This election commitment is now met.

That is what the press release said.

The Auditor-General will provide a “health check” on the final product of a campaign before it is communicated.

What have we seen since? We have seen broken promise after broken promise after broken promise. This duplicitous government went to the election with weasel words from the Prime Minister, weasel words from the then opposition in relation to accountability, in relation to what the Auditor-General would be required to do and in relation to their commitment to changing the rules in relation to government advertising.

Not just two weeks ago in Senate estimates we saw the most disgraceful display from this government in relation to their complete and utter contempt for the Australian people. Under the new guidelines the Auditor-General has gone and there is a so-called independent committee, the ICC, which is meant to scrutinise government advertising. Auditor-General out and three people on two-year terms brought in to substitute for the Auditor-General. Three people, one of them getting the equivalent of $350,000 over two years, I might say.

Guess what? The minister has given himself an extended exemption to take this matter out of the hands of the so-called independent committee. The Auditor-General was subject to some guidelines in relation to this but this minister and this Prime Minister, who has broken his word in relation to this matter, put in some new words, some catch-all words, namely ‘compelling reasons’. How long is a piece of string? This takes it from a matter of urgency to compelling under this new committee. We sat in Senate estimates, we discussed exemptions and the department gave evidence. I will read it:

Mr Grant—I might add that, where an exemption is granted, the minister formally records and reports the exemption to parliament.

Senator RONALDSON—When is that tabled?

Mr Grant—Historically it has been tabled as soon as the exemption has been granted, within a day or two.

When was this exemption letter signed? It was signed on Monday, 24 May, the day that Senate estimates started. Indeed the issue of government advertising was put across until the Thursday to enable some proper discussion of it. So on Monday this letter was signed having been told that historically, and I will read it again, ‘When an exemption has been granted, it is within a day or two that it is tabled.’

We had a ridiculous interjection from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy this afternoon when he said, ‘You didn’t ask the question’. We did not ask the question whether you were breaking the rules and whether you were trying to mislead the Senate. Sorry, next time we will ask the obvious question: were you misleading us or is there something you are not telling us? What a stupid and idiotic interjection from the minister for communications.

What is the basis on which this exemption has been given? Interestingly, and honourable senators might not be aware of this—guess what?—this independent committee had actually considered this government advertising in relation to the mining tax on 21 April before the release of the Henry review. They probably got the papers on 19 April. The cabinet group met on 20 April to tick off on this. I asked the specific question in the economics committee: was the ICC given any indication at all that an exception might be required? The answer was no, they were not. The independent committee had had this since, at the minimum, 21 April. Henry was released on 2 May. The letter was written by the Treasurer to get exemption on 10 May.

What was the urgent or compelling reason for this? Two advertisements in the West Australian on the Friday and Saturday saying no more and no less than the mining industry was paying its fair share of tax. That was the basis on which this was done. It was done on the basis that they hit the panic button in relation to this tax. They realised that they had made a dreadful mistake and they wanted to get in early. They have breached their own rules and I will refer to the Treasurer’s letter to Minister Ludwig which is quite remarkable. It says:

… the benefit of the exemption from the guidelines will be to ensure that advertising is able to go to air much more quickly—

Much more quickly, okay—

This means issues and misinformation currently being aired in the media can be addressed …

Two advertisements.

Senator Scullion —Entirely accurate.

Senator RONALDSON —Two entirely accurate advertisements in relation to this big new tax on mining—that was the sole airing of concern in relation to this matter in a public sense. This is a complete and utter stitch up and this is absolutely indicative of a government that has lost the right to govern.