It’s election season, so brace for more taxpayer-funded ads - Grattan Institute

The Victorian election is just around the corner, reliably signalled by an increase in political advertising. Party-sponsored ads are flooding TV, social media, and billboards, each vying for our vote in November. But election eve is also prime time for government advertising – and that’s costing you and me.

A Grattan Institute report released today confirms what we all suspected: that government spending on taxpayer-funded ads 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 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 small change either. In 2018-19, the year of the last state election, the Victorian government spent nearly $90 million on advertising campaigns. During the first half of 2022, Nielsen reported that the Victorian government was the second-biggest ad spender in the country, trailing only the federal government, and ahead of all businesses, including Harvey Norman, Woolworths, and McDonald’s, who are all known for their deep pockets when it comes to advertising expenditure.

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.

Earlier this year, the Victorian auditor-general released a scathing report on some of the state government’s most prominent advertising campaigns. It found that some ads in the $11.5 million Victoria’s Big Build campaign were “designed in a way that could easily be seen to influence public sentiment about the current Victorian government”. The report also found that most of the ads in the $1.7 million Our Fair Share campaign, which called for more Commonwealth funding for Victoria, were political because they promoted the Victorian government and criticised the then federal government.

When a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign is politicised, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was conceived solely for a political purpose. But the point 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 to use public money to boost their image.

Victoria has stronger rules than most jurisdictions. They prohibit politicisation of taxpayer-funded advertising – but there are no consequences for flouting these laws.

In response to the auditor-general’s finding on the Our Fair Share campaign, Premier Daniel Andrews merely said: “The auditor-general’s entitled to their view, [but the] government believes we complied with all relevant matters, and we wouldn’t hesitate to run that campaign again.”

Victorians cannot rely solely on the goodwill of governments to prevent misuse of government 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 behaviour change in the public interest.

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

The government should establish an independent panel to check final campaign materials. This would replace the current in-house review process in Victoria. This independent expert panel should have the power to knock-back campaigns that are politicised or, more generally, don’t offer value for money.

Finally, we recommend a simple but strong penalty for breaking the rules: the governing party, not taxpayers, should be liable to pay the costs of advertising that has not gone through the independent panel. This would discourage governments from subverting good process, and provide a stronger safeguard against misuse of public 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