Chapter 1 - Background to the inquiry
Establishment of inquiry
On 23 June
2004, the Senate referred to the Finance and Public Administration References
Committee for inquiry and report by 27
October 2004, the following matters:
- the level of expenditure on, and the nature and extent
of, government advertising since 1996;
- the processes involved in decision-making on government
advertising, including the role of the Government Communications Unit and the
Ministerial Committee on Government Communications;
- the adequacy of the accountability framework and, in
particular, the 1995 guidelines for government advertising, with reference to
relevant reports, guidelines and
principles issued by the Auditor-General and the Joint Committee of Public
Accounts and Audit;
- the means of
ensuring the ongoing application of guidelines based on those recommended by
the Auditor-General and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts to all
government advertising; and
- the order of
the Senate of 29 October 2003 relating to advertising projects, and whether the
order is an effective mechanism for parliamentary accountability in relation to
Parliament was prorogued on 31 August 2004 and, in accordance with Senate Standing
Order 38 (7), the Committee presented an interim report on its inquiry on 1 September 2004. The report
noted that the Committee had received nine submissions on the terms of
reference, and that the Committee would review the need for the inquiry in the
November 2004, the Senate re-established the inquiry into
government advertising and accountability with amendments to term of reference
(a). The revised term of reference (a) specifies that the inquiry is to focus
on 'Commonwealth government advertising', and accordingly reads as follows:
- the level of expenditure on, and the nature and extent
of, Commonwealth government advertising since 1996.
The other terms of reference were unchanged.
Changes to terms of reference
The Special Minister of State, Senator the Hon.
suggested that the change in the terms of reference was an attempt by the
Committee to exclude examination of advertising conducted by State Labor
This claim is not sustainable. As was pointed out by
the Chair of the Committee, Senator Michael
Forshaw, the original terms of reference
(b), (c), (d) and (e) were already clearly directed towards Commonwealth government expenditure on
advertising. They specifically referred to Commonwealth bodies such as the
Government Communications Unit, the Ministerial Committee on Government
Communications, to the principles recommended by the Auditor-General and the
Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit to the Commonwealth government,
and to the order of the Senate of 29
October 2003. The alteration to term of reference (a) merely served
to clarify the original intent of the
inquiry, not to change it.
In any case, in the first phase of the inquiry the
Committee had noted that the phrase 'government advertising' in the original
terms of reference could be construed as extending to state government
advertising. Because of this, the Committee wrote to each premier and chief
minister, and to the leader of the opposition in each state and territory,
inviting them to make a submission to the inquiry. There was no response to
these invitations, except from the Chief Minister of the Australian
Capital Territory, who indicated that his government
did not wish to make a submission.
Finally, the revised terms of reference were ultimately
adopted by the Senate without debate. It is thus demonstrably the case that the
Committee did not seek to exclude submissions from the states and territories,
and did not arbitrarily curtail the original intent of the inquiry.
Conduct of inquiry
The inquiry referred on 18 November 2004 was scheduled to report by 22 June 2005. On 16 June 2005, the Senate extended the
time to report to 10 November 2005.
On 11 October 2005, the
Senate extended the time to report until 1 December 2005.
The submissions received to the original inquiry were
treated as evidence to the re-established inquiry. A full list of submissions
received is provided at Appendix 1.
The Committee held public hearings on 18 August 2005, 19 August 2005, and 7 October 2005. A list of witnesses who appeared before
the Committee is provided at Appendix 2.
Government cooperation with inquiry
Although almost all departments conduct government
advertising campaigns, none of the 'line' departments made submissions to the
Committee's inquiry. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
(PM&C) made a submission which described the Central Advertising System
(CAS), the role of the Government Communications Unit (GCU) and the Ministerial
Committee on Government Communications (MCGC), and briefly addressed the terms
Officers from the GCU in PM&C appeared at the initial
public hearings of the Committee on behalf of all government departments. This
caused some difficulty for the Committee, as these officers were unable to
directly answer questions posed about the development of particular government
advertising campaigns within other departments.
This experience highlighted for the Committee one of
the issues relating to accountability in government advertising. This is the
difficulty of identifying exactly which department, unit or minister within
government is finally accountable for the decision to expend money on government
advertising, and which department, unit or minister is accountable for the
final shape and content of the campaigns. These matters will be discussed in detail
in the report.
Subsequently some departments gave evidence on specific
campaigns at a public hearing and others agreed to take questions on notice
from the Committee. The Committee has also made use of evidence relevant to the
inquiry taken by Senate Committees during the Supplementary Estimates hearings
in October and November 2005.
Evidence from Minister Abetz
Abetz made two submissions to the
Committee's inquiry in his capacity as Special Minister of State and Chairman
of the MCGC, and subsequently gave evidence at two of the Committee's public
The Committee notes that it is not all that common for
Ministers to appear before Senate Committees (except Estimates hearings). The
Committee therefore appreciates Senator Abetz's
active participation in this
However, the Committee is disappointed and perturbed at
the personal attacks against other witnesses to the inquiry which comprised a
large part of Senator Abetz's
contribution. These attacks were unwarranted, often factually wrong, and ran
the risk of bringing the Committee process itself into disrepute. In
particular, the Committee notes that the notion that holding political opinions
or engaging in political activism makes a witness biased or irrelevant is
offensive and intolerant.
In several cases, Senator Abetz
attempted to discredit the evidence of other witnesses, by alleging that partisan political affiliation on
their part influenced their evidence. For example, he accused Dr
of having been a Labor Ministerial staffer, a campaign worker for a Labor MP in
the 2001 federal election and a media adviser at Labor campaign headquarters
during the 2002 Victorian election. On the basis of this history, according to Senator
Young is to be regarded as 'a hard-core
pro-Labor ideologue' which is 'why she is criticising the Howard Government'.
In fact, Dr Young
is a lecturer in the Media and Communications Program at the University
of Melbourne and, as an expert in
the field of government advertising, has published extensively. In response to this extraordinary ad hominem attack from Senator Abetz, Dr
Young noted that she had never been a Labor Ministerial staffer and that her
total work history with the Australian Labor Party had totalled three months (two
months as a staffer with a Labor MP in 2001 and one month as an unpaid
volunteer during the 2002 Victorian election).
also failed to mention that when Dr Young
worked as a public servant, part of her duties involved writing material for ministerial
briefs and speech notes for then Liberal Party MP and Minister, Bronwyn Bishop,
and that she had worked briefly in the office of a National Party MP.
The Committee is also particularly concerned about the
intemperate attacks made by Senator Abetz
on the Clerk of the Senate, Mr Harry
Evans, who also made several submissions to the inquiry.
disagreed with aspects of the Clerk's evidence, calling it variously
'scurrilous', 'unprecedented', 'highly regrettable', 'unsupported', and 'slanderous'. While Senator Abetz
is entitled to critically analyse any evidence, that should be done without
personal attacks. Rather than addressing the issues raised in this evidence, however,
Senator Abetz implied that
the Clerk had no business to be making a submission to the inquiry. He said:
I would remind him of what Odger's requires of him as Clerk of
the Senate – that is, that he is the principal adviser in relation to the
proceedings of the Senate. They are the technical proceedings of the Senate, not
whether or not a government should have its budget blocked, whether a minister
ought be censored or whether legislation ought be passed. If you read Odger's,
in terms of the proceedings of the Senate, it is quite clear that it is the
The Committee absolutely rejects this suggestion by the
Minister that the Clerk of the Senate should be restricted to commenting and
advising on merely technical or procedural matters.
The right of the Clerks of both Houses of Parliament to
make submissions to parliamentary inquiries is enshrined in the Parliamentary Services Act 1999. Section
19 of the Act states that:
the Clerk of either House of the Parliament is not subject to
direction by a Presiding Officer in relation to any advice sought from, or
given by, the Clerk with respect to that House or any of its committees or
himself noted that an important part of his role as Clerk of the Senate is to
assist the Senate and its committees to carry out their legislative functions.
One of the legislative functions of the Senate and its
committees is to establish and improve oversight and scrutiny measures to
scrutinise the activities of the executive government and the expenditure of
public moneys. In assisting the Senate and its committees to perform that
function, I frequently make recommendations for, and comment on, accountability
and scrutiny mechanisms and the enhancement of existing mechanisms. The
comments and the recommendations I make might not necessarily always be agreeable
to the executive government, but that is not a factor which I can allow to
influence the recommendations I make, which are based on assisting the Senate
and its committees as legislative bodies.
The Committee is highly disturbed by the Minister's suggestion
that it is inappropriate for the Clerk to make substantive comment about the
accountability of the executive to the Parliament on particular issues. This
smacks of an attempt to intimidate the Clerk into not providing advice which is
discomfiting to the government of the day. It is not a mark of an open and
liberal democracy for criticisms of government to be met with slander,
intimidation and the attempted discrediting of reputations.
Quite apart from the abuse of the Committee's processes
involved in peddling falsehoods disguised as evidence, the Committee is
concerned about whether Senator Abetz's
widely publicised attacks on the integrity of witnesses may serve to inhibit
ordinary Australians from participating in the Senate's inquiries in future.
As Professor Charles
Sampford, another witness who was personally
and inaccurately criticised by Senator Abetz,
I did not come here to make partisan comments but to address a
genuine problem arising from a temptation to abuse power that goes directly to
the heart of our democracy. I did not come to Canberra to pick a fight with
Senator Abetz and I did not make a criticism of any campaign from either side
of politics ... I must say that I am taken aback at the comments of Senator Abetz
as I have to date always been treated with respect by parliamentary committees
and their members ... I note that Senator Abetz seeks to dismiss some of the
other submissions because of the alleged political affiliations of those making
them ... I believe that the Committee should examine all submissions on their
merits. I am not the issue and I do not intend to be the issue. I take it that
the same holds true of others making submissions.
Senate Committee inquiries are utterly dependent on the
citizens who volunteer their time, energy and expertise to write submissions
and to participate in public hearings. It is in the public interest for
Australians to feel free to come before the Senate and freely give their
records, in the strongest possible terms, its abhorrence of the bullying and
personal vilification by Senator Abetz
and one of his staff of those who
contributed to this Senate inquiry. Whatever one's view of the validity or
merits of particular arguments presented to the Committee, there is no excuse
for engaging in personal attacks on witnesses. It is even more reprehensible
when conducted by a Minister of the Crown. Such attacks add nothing to the
debate, reflect badly on the Cabinet and would seem designed to avoid serious
engagement with the issues under scrutiny.
What is government advertising?
Government advertising or information campaigns are an
accepted means by which governments inform the public about new initiatives,
policies or programs, and advise people how they might benefit or what they
need to do to comply with new requirements. The Commonwealth government is one
of the largest national advertisers in Australia.
Government advertising is divided into 'non-campaign'
advertising and 'campaign' advertising. Non-campaign advertising is usually
non-contentious and includes one-off advertisements for job vacancies in
Australian government organisations, public notices and tenders. Campaign
advertising includes the production and dissemination of material to the public
about government programs, policies and matters which affect their benefits,
rights and obligations. Recent
examples of Australian government campaign advertising include the GST campaign
(A New Tax System campaign), the Pharmaceutical Benefits campaign, the Smart
Traveller campaign, and the WorkChoices
campaign promoting workplace relations reforms.
There are only very limited restrictions on government
advertising in legislation. The Commonwealth
Electoral Act 1918 sets out certain requirements for identifying the source
of authorisation of electoral advertisements.
The Broadcasting Services Act 1992
imposes conditions on broadcasters in relation to broadcasts of 'political
matter' or 'matter relating to a political subject or current affairs'. The effect of the conditions is that
such material must be broadcast with information that identifies the relevant
political party or the relevant advertiser (eg. 'Authorised by the Australian
Government'), the location of the office and the person authorising the
Need for the inquiry
The Committee received no evidence expressing concern
about 'non-campaign advertising by the Commonwealth government, and no evidence
which disputed the right or the propriety of governments conducting 'campaign' advertising
under a range of circumstances.
In his Research Note for the Parliamentary Library, Dr
At one level, government advertising has an important democratic
function. The public has a right to be informed about the programs which their
taxes fund. Equally, governments have a right to establish a framework for
delivering this information, subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Orr, senior lecturer in law at Griffith
University, said in his submission
No one suggests that governments should not advertise, or that
they should not employ mass media forms and modern PR techniques. In an age
saturated with information and images, public services need to be explained and
promoted in ways that keep them accessible and relevant. There is nothing
inherently wrong in using 'sexy' media to convey a message, provided the
message is: (a) inherently justified on public service principles and (b) when
taken in context with other mass media campaigns at the time, and against the
backdrop of partisan contention [sic] issues, is not immodest in size, cost or
The problem with government advertising arises when the
distinction between legitimate government advertising for public policy
purposes and political advertising for partisan political advantage is blurred.
In other words, the problem arises when governments use or are perceived to use
taxpayer funds to gain political advantage through promoting themselves, rather
than to meet the genuine information needs of citizens.
Over a number of years, concern has been expressed by
members and Senators on all sides of politics that incumbent governments have
succumbed to this temptation.
In 1995, the then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon.
John Howard MP
criticised the Keating Labor government for its pre-election advertising
program, saying that 'there is clearly a massive difference between necessary
Government information for the community and blatant Government electoral
propaganda'. In a press release, Mr
Howard stated that the Shadow Cabinet had
agreed that 'in Government, we will ask the Auditor-General to draw up new
guidelines on what is an appropriate use of taxpayers' money in this area'. Despite being in government for over 9
years, this has not occurred.
In turn, the Howard
government has been criticised by the Labor party for its use of taxpayer
funded advertising of programs or policies such as the goods and services tax. A number of inquiries in the last ten
years have recommended reforms to the guidelines on government advertising, in
light of concerns about particular campaigns.
The Committee notes then that there are two aspects to
this inquiry. The first is whether in fact the distinction between government
advertising for public policy purposes and political advertising for partisan
political advantage has been blurred, particularly by the Commonwealth
government since 1996, and if so, what can be done about it. The second is
whether the guidelines and accountability framework for government advertising
are sufficiently robust to protect against this kind of misuse, or even
minimise the potential for abuse or misuse.
Nature of Commonwealth government
advertising since 1996
There was dispute before the Committee about whether there
had in fact been misuse of government advertising at the Commonwealth level
The majority of submissions made to the inquiry
expressed the view that there is a 'problem' with the use of government
advertising by both state and Commonwealth governments. The misuse of government advertising was
said to have occurred on both sides of politics, with the trend escalating over
the past decade.
Young, lecturer, Media and Communications
Program at the University of Melbourne
incumbent Australian governments – both state and federal – are
increasingly using government advertising as pseudo-political advertising to
shore up their re-election chances.
Evans, Clerk of the Senate, remarked that:
There is a widespread perception that government advertising
campaigns are employed for party-political and electoral advantage. The
perception is that the party in government uses taxpayer-funded government
advertising campaigns as a supplement to party-political advertising to achieve
favourable perception of the party in the electorate, and favourable election
In a similar vein, Dr
Graeme Orr, Professor
Charles Sampford, and Professor Stephen
Bartos all commented on the 'spike'
in government advertising in election years which, according to Dr
Orr, 'is the most damning circumstantial
evidence imaginable of the fact that advertising campaigns are being used for
By contrast, Senator Abetz
strongly disputed the views expressed by these witnesses to the inquiry. He
rejected both the claims, at least as they pertain to the current government,
that some government advertising is party political and that there is a spike
in government advertising before elections.
He argued that the campaigns run by the Coalition
government since 1996 have been very similar to the campaigns run by the
federal Labor government in the eight years prior to 1996. He said:
It is notable that critics of the Government's current
information program have been loathe to actually nominate campaigns that they
would eliminate if they were in a position of power to do so. On the contrary,
they have been at pains to state that Government advertising is important. Yet
the apparent contradiction between their 'in principle' support and their
opposition to the practical application of that support remains unresolved.
Adequacy of accountability
As noted earlier, the Committee considers that any
justification of the need for reform of the accountability framework does not
depend upon establishing absolutely that there has been misuse of government
advertising for party political purposes by the current federal government.
The question is rather whether the current guidelines
and decision making practices are suitable for modern practices and are
sufficiently robust to prevent misuse by any incumbent government. This is a
question which can be resolved as a matter of good public administration and
integrity, independently of proven instances of misuse.
Again, evidence to the Committee conflicted on the
question of the adequacy of the existing accountability framework for
The majority of submissions argued that a number of
features of current practice give rise for concern about accountability in this
area. These features include the extent of disclosure of expenditure and
Parliamentary control over appropriations, the comprehensiveness of guidelines
for government information activities, and the enforceability of those
For example, Dr Sally
Young and The Agency Register commented on
the difficulty of establishing with any certitude what the government has spent
on advertising in any given financial year.
Mr Harry Evans noted that the controversy over the government's advertising
campaign for its industrial relations changes, the WorkChoices campaign, has
highlighted the limits of parliamentary control over how much money is
available for particular purposes or the purposes for which money is to be
spent. This indicates that the
appropriations process itself may provide little restraint on government
spending on advertising. And finally, a number of submissions commented upon
the need to adopt stricter guidelines for government advertising, with
monitoring of those guidelines by an independent body or the Auditor-General.
however, rejected the view that there are areas of concern in the current
accountability framework covering government advertising. He maintained that
current levels of disclosure of information about the nature of and expenditure
on government advertising campaigns are sufficient, and that the current
guidelines are adequate and proposed alternatives 'unworkable'.
Structure of the Report
In the next two chapters of the report, the Committee outlines
expenditure on government advertising and the nature of the campaigns run since
1996. Chapter 2 attempts to calculate total expenditure on government
advertising in the period 1996-97 to 2003-04. The difficulty of making this
calculation highlights potential problems with the current disclosure and
reporting of that expenditure. In Chapter 3, the Committee outlines the nature
of the advertising campaigns run since 1996. It considers what threshold
questions would need to be satisfied in order to justify the considerable
expenditure of public funds on these activities.
In Chapter 4, the Committee considers the process of
appropriating funds for expenditure on government advertising in the context of
the recent WorkChoices campaign and the High Court challenge to its legality.
This chapter highlights two major issues. The first is the whole question of
Parliamentary control over government expenditure, and how the current appropriations
process contributes to the overall weakness in the accountability framework for
government advertising. The second is the extent to which this government is
prepared to use taxpayer's money to fund advertising widely perceived to be blatantly
In Chapter 5, the Committee outlines the administrative
processes for decision-making on Commonwealth government advertising and
highlights the roles respectively of the Government Communications Unit within
the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Ministerial Committee
on Government Communications.
The question of the adequacy of the current guidelines
for government advertising, the 1995 Guidelines
for Australian Government Information Activities: Principles and Procedures,
is examined in Chapter 6. The Committee analyses suggested revised guidelines
and principles issued by the Auditor-General in 1998, and the Joint Committee of
Public Accounts and Audit in 2000.
In Chapter 7, the Committee considers the question of
the enforceability of any revised guidelines and examines other proposals for
strengthening the accountability framework, including caps on expenditure on
government advertising and improved disclosure provisions. In that context, the
Committee discusses the order of the Senate of 29 October 2003 and the new accountability framework
adopted in Canada,
and makes recommendations for strengthening the transparency and accountability
of the system.
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