Election eve is prime time for ‘government’ advertising - Grattan Institute

With six months to go until the NSW state election, political advertising on TV, social media, and billboards will ramp up as political parties compete for our votes in March 2023. But election eve is also prime time for government advertising – and that’s costing all of us.

A Grattan Institute report released today confirms what we all suspected: that government spending on taxpayer-funded advertising consistently spikes in the lead-up to elections.

Weaponising taxpayer-funded advertising for political advantage wastes public money, undermines trust in politicians and democracy, and creates an uneven playing field in election campaigns. Something has to change.

Governments run many legitimate advertising campaigns that communicate important information to the public or ask them to take action, such as encouraging people to get a COVID-19 booster shot.

But governments also take advantage of this “pot of money” to run advertising campaigns with strong political overtones – using party colour schemes, or promoting feel-good messages about their policies and performance – often on the eve of elections.

We’re not talking about small change either. In 2018-19, the year of the last state election, the NSW government spent $84 million on advertising campaigns. During the first half of 2022, Nielsen reported that the NSW government was the fourth-biggest ad spender in the country, trailing the federal and Victorian governments and Harvey Norman, but ahead of big-name businesses such as Woolworths, Coles, and McDonald’s – that are known for their big advertising spend.

At the federal level, our analysis suggests about a quarter of all spending on campaign advertising – nearly $50 million a year – is spent on politicised ads. There are many examples at the state level, too.

In 2015-16, NSW’s $4.5 million “Stronger Councils, Stronger Communities” campaign sought to build support for council mergers. But rather than offering a benefit to the public, the state Auditor-General noted that the advertising was expected to “increase the confidence of Members of the Legislative Assembly and Members of the Legislative Council to support the reform legislation”.

And in 2018-19, the $5 million “Cost of Living” campaign, which sought to build awareness of help available to ease the cost of living, “inappropriately used its post-campaign evaluation to measure sentiment towards and confidence in the NSW Government”.

When a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign is politicised, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was conceived solely for a political purpose. But the problem is there shouldn’t be any confusion – government messages should not morph into political ones.

The opposition, as well as minor parties and independents, are unfairly disadvantaged when governments exploit their incumbency and use public money to boost their image.

NSW has stronger advertising rules than most jurisdictions. Government campaigns will be banned from Australia Day (January 26) next year until election day (March 25). And the rules, at least in theory, prohibit the politicisation of taxpayer-funded advertising, with the governing party liable to pay the costs of the campaign if it breaks this rule.

But the problem with these rules is that the definition of politicisation is too narrow. It does not explicitly prohibit the promotion of state government performance or policies. So, although the state auditor-general criticised the “Stronger Councils, Stronger Communities” and “Cost of Living” campaigns, it did not find that they breached the law.

Australians cannot rely solely on the goodwill of governments to prevent the misuse of taxpayer-funded advertising. Stronger safeguards are needed to protect the public interest and prevent this waste of taxpayer money.

We recommend better rules and processes at federal and state levels to prevent governments from politicising taxpayer-funded advertising.

Campaigns should run only if they encourage specific actions or seek to drive behavioural change in the public interest.

Campaign materials should obviously not promote a party, or the government, and should not spruik government policies either. And campaigns should run when they would be most effective, not when they will provide a political advantage (such as immediately before an election).

Stronger rules would obviate the need for any pre-election bans. But better rules alone won’t be enough. The government should also establish an independent panel to check final campaign materials. This would replace the current in-house review process in NSW. This independent panel should have the power to reject campaigns that are not compliant – whether they are politicised or more generally don’t offer value for money.

Unfortunately, our proposed reform package won’t spare you entirely from those annoying election ads, but it will at least ensure you aren’t footing the bill for them.

Danielle Wood

Chief Executive Officer
Danielle Wood is CEO of the Grattan Institute where she heads a team of leading policy thinkers, researching and advocating policy to improve the lives of Australians. Danielle also leads Grattan’s Budgets and Government Program.

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Danielle Wood – CEO