Abuse of taxpayer-funded advertising is rife in Australia, with governments routinely spending public money to spruik their own achievements, especially in the lead up to elections.
Of the nearly $200 million spent each year by the federal government on advertising, nearly $50 million is spent on politicised campaigns.
Over the past 13 years about $630 million, or a quarter of all federal campaign advertising, was spent on campaigns that spruiked government achievements – and spending spiked on the eve of each federal election.
This is a problem on both sides of politics, and at federal and state level. Of the 10 most expensive politicised federal campaigns in the past 13 years, half were approved by Labor governments and half by Coalition governments. Auditors-general often criticise state government advertising campaigns too.
In the lead up to the 2019 federal election, the government spent about $85 million of taxpayers’ money on politicised advertising campaigns – on par with the combined spend by political parties on TV, print, and radio advertising.
Weaponising taxpayer-funded advertising for political advantage wastes public money, undermines trust in politicians and democracy, and creates an uneven playing field in elections.
Australia needs tougher rules and tighter processes at federal and state level to prevent governments from exploiting taxpayer-funded advertising.
Government advertising campaigns should be allowed only where they are necessary to encourage specific actions or drive behaviour change. Campaigns that promote government policies or programs, without a strong call-to-action, should be prohibited.
An independent expert panel should assess all government advertising campaigns before they are launched. If the panel deems a campaign to be politicised, or otherwise not value for money, it should not run.
These rules and processes should carry real penalties. If an Auditor-General finds that an advertising campaign was approved by the minister without certification from the independent panel, or that the government changed the campaign after certification, the governing party should be liable to pay back the entire cost of the campaign.
Sadly, Australians cannot rely on the goodwill of ministers to prevent misuse of public money on politicised advertising.
It’s time to ensure that taxpayer-funded advertising is solely for the benefit of the public, not politicians.
This is the third and final report in Grattan’s New politics series on misuse of public office for political gain. The first, published in July, tackled politicisation of public appointments, and the second, published in August, focused on pork-barrelling of government grants.