Chapter 3 - Nature and extent of government advertising since 1996
In this chapter of the report, the Committee considers
the nature and the extent of Commonwealth government advertising since 1996
with particular reference to:
major campaigns run;
comparison with previous federal government
justification for government advertising
Major campaigns since 1996
Major government advertising campaigns since 1996 have
included campaigns on defence recruitment, the taxation system, pharmaceutical
benefits, the republic referendum, national security, Medicare,
apprenticeships, domestic violence, lifetime health cover, Smart Traveller,
citizenship, regional telecommunications, superannuation co-contributions,
breast and cervical screening, Job Network, waste oil, alcohol and illicit
drugs, immunisation, tobacco, family assistance benefits and quarantine.
The campaigns are usually conducted through a range of
media, including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines, and may also
involve direct mail-outs, booklets, posters, websites, focus group testing and
other market research.
The government's most recent major advertising campaign
on its proposed industrial relations reforms, the WorkChoices campaign, will
involve expenditure of around $55 million.
This campaign is discussed in detail in the following chapter.
The following table lists the ten highest spending
advertising campaigns between 1991-92 and 2003-04 in descending order, with
estimated or budgeted expenditure provided in nominal dollars. The expenditure reported refers only
to expenditure through the Central Advertising System.
Table 3.1: Major government advertising campaigns, 1991-92 to 2003-04
A New Tax System (GST)
Campaign (2003- )
Campaign (as at 30 June 2003)
Apprenticeships (1997 -
Domestic Violence Campaign
Lifetime Health Cover
Source: Research Note No.62,
Parliamentary Library, 21 June 2004, p. 2.
Comparison with previous federal government practice
In evidence to the Committee, Senator Abetz
argued that the Australian government's spending on advertising since 1996 was
comparable to, if not restrained, by the standards of other governments. He
Between 1996 and 2004 the Australian government spent $929
million on government information programs. This pales in comparison with state
government expenditure in the same period, which totalled $2.15 billion ...The
Parliamentary Library figures for the last two financial years of the Keating
Labor government show an average spend of $100 million. In the last two full
financial years of the current government, the spend averaged $106 million. Yet
the Carr Labor government of New South Wales,
for one state only, spent $104 million in one year alone, 2000-01. One is
therefore tempted to ask rhetorically why it is that only this government is
being questioned about spends.
comparisons are misleading. Firstly, the Committee has already demonstrated in
Chapter 2 that the figure of $929 million spent by the Commonwealth government
in the period 1996-2004 greatly understates the total expenditure on
advertising. Secondly, Senator Abetz's
comparison with state governments' advertising expenditure is spurious. Senator
Abetz refers to a figure of $104 million in
2000-01 for the NSW State Government which of course was the year of the Sydney
Olympics. By 2001-02 the total expenditure by the NSW Government had fallen to
$86 million. Thirdly, it is
indisputable that state governments have a much greater demand for regular
advertising due to the larger range of services they provide to the community.
For instance, state government advertising on employment vacancies and
government notices is significantly greater than for the Commonwealth
With regard to previous Commonwealth governments, the
Committee notes that when the current federal government was in opposition, it
argued that spending on government advertising by the then Keating government
was at unacceptable levels. In a press release, then Opposition leader, the Hon.
John Howard MP,
This soiled Government is to spend a massive $14 million of
taxpayers' money over the next two months as part of its pre-election panic.
Judging by information coming from within the public service, if the full
communication barrage runs its course it could reach $50 million. This
Government has effectively allowed the Labor Party to get its fingers into the
Given these highly critical comments, it is then hardly
a justification for the current excessive use or even misuse of taxpayer funds
for Senator Abetz to argue
that 'they did it too'.
In his submission to the Committee, Senator
Abetz also compared the nature of the
current government's 'information activities' with those run by the previous
federal Labor government, and noted that they covered similar issues.
He advised that federal Labor government advertising
between 1988 and 1996 had included campaigns on defence recruitment, youth
training and New Start programs, promotion of the Commonwealth Employment
Service, AIDS awareness, alcohol and illicit drugs, Medicare, mental health,
breast and cervical screening, tobacco, pharmaceutical benefits, citizenship,
Aboriginal reconciliation, quarantine, global warming, superannuation, family
allowance, industrial relations and working nation, and others. He said:
From the list above, it is clear that the content of Government
campaign [sic] differs very little between Governments. Thus, if the content is
not the issue, the only objection could be based on either quantum, which is
roughly comparable, or style, which is a matter of individual taste and hardly
an objective criteria [sic] upon which to base a judgement.
There are important questions related to these matters
which are not answered merely by appeal to parity with previous government
practice. These questions concern the efficiency and effectiveness of
government advertising campaigns in meeting the community need by which they
are said to be justified.
Justification for government advertising campaigns
The question at the heart of this inquiry is: can
particular expenditures on government advertising and information activities be
justified by their meeting identified needs in the community? The two main
issues that must be addressed in answering that question are:
what are the community's information needs and
the most efficient strategies for meeting them?; and
when is government advertising being used for
primarily political purposes?
Need for and efficiency of
The Committee was told that the need for particular
advertising campaigns is determined by individual departments and agencies, and
their ministers. Having made that determination, the department comes to the
Government Communications Unit in PM&C, which will 'facilitate' the
development of the campaign. Mr Greg
Williams, First Assistant Secretary, People,
Resources and Communications Division, PM&C, said that the GCU would assist
the department to develop a communication strategy and identify appropriate
It will look at the communication strategy to see what the
message is, what the target audience is and other issues associated with a
proper communication strategy. Having gone through that process, the department
will put that communication strategy, the related briefs and the lists of consultants
up through their minister. When the minister is satisfied with the strategy,
the briefs and the lists, they will come to the MCGC [Ministerial Committee on
A more detailed account of this decision making process
is provided in Chapter 5. For the purposes of this section of the report,
however, the Committee notes that the determination of the need for and nature
of the message and the target audience is made initially by departments and
their ministers, although the final approval of the campaign itself belongs to
In his submission to the inquiry, the Clerk of the
Senate, Mr Harry
Evans, identified key questions that should
arise in relation to each substantial advertising project. They are:
- Is there a clearly-identified need for the
information to be conveyed by the project?
- Is the scale of the
project appropriate to that need for information?
- Is the project accurately targeted to the
people who need the information?
- Does the project clearly and accurately
convey the required information?
- Are the means adopted of conveying the
information the most efficient for that purpose?
- Is the project conducted in the most
economical way of achieving the purpose, that is, is the best value for money
A number of submissions to the inquiry questioned
whether some recent government advertising campaigns would satisfactorily
answer these threshold questions.
For example, Dr Sally
Young, Lecturer, Media and Communications
Program, University of Melbourne,
questioned whether advertisements promoting bonus payments to carers and family
assistance benefits conveyed in the most efficient possible way information
which was directly relevant to only certain segments of the population. She
We've seen full page newspaper ads that consist mainly of a
large photograph of a woman with a child; or an elderly person's hand. These
ads contained scant written detail but what was provided was extraordinary. One
full page ad for a bonus payment to carers said: 'You do not have to do
anything to claim your money ...it will be paid automatically into your bank
account ...'. Ads for family assistance said: 'If you were receiving Family Tax
Benefit Part (A) ... then you automatically qualify ...'.
How can full-page newspaper ads costing $25, 000 each be
justified when these entitlements are directed at very specific groups (who can
be contacted by the relevant department that administers their benefits via
letter) and when those groups do not even have to do anything to access their
also criticised other advertisements which, she said, seemed to promote a
'feel-good' message rather than specific information that had been identified
as required by the community. She
cited the example, in this context, of advertising on the environment as did Professor
a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration with
responsibility for the Office of Government Information and Advertising. He
Environment department television advertising 'lend the land a
hand' is virtually devoid of semantic content. Other than the arguably
misleading claim that the current government is spending more on the
environment than any other (a highly contestable political claim) it consists
of frequent repetitions of the title slogan and accompanying images. It is hard
to see how this specifically relates to the responsibilities of the department
... This advertising seems designed solely for emotional effect.
The Committee is particularly concerned about the
rigour of the process for determining the need for and style of campaigns,
given that expenditure on government advertising is not obviously constrained
by limits on departmental budgets in this area. The question of the budget and
appropriations process for government advertising expenditure is considered in
more detail in Chapter 4.
Government advertising and
The controversy over government advertising expenditure
arises not simply from concern about the efficient use of public funds. It
arises because there is a strong concern that government advertising campaigns
can be used to promote the government itself. The charge is that some
government advertising campaigns amount to a form of party political advertising
by stealth, conducted at taxpayers' expense.
This charge is supported with reference to two related
arguments. The first, already outlined above, is that the information content
of some advertising campaigns is so slight or unfocused or one-sided, that
their main purpose cannot reasonably be considered to be to educate or inform
citizens of new policies, entitlements or obligations that affect them.
Instead, the point of such advertisements is to
engender a favourable view of the government itself, or of proposed government
initiatives. This objective need not mean that advertisements contain overtly
partisan political content, but could be achieved through the accumulation of
'feel-good' images of a government caring for people, the environment and the
This argument is supported by the fact that there is a
'spike' in government advertising in federal election years.
Election year 'spikes'
Orr expressed this argument in his
submission to the Committee. He said:
The now routine, but always dramatic pre-election 'spike' in
spending on government advertising is the most damning circumstantial evidence
imaginable of the fact that advertising campaigns are being used for political
effect. Indeed, the fact that such ads stop during an election campaign is
further evidence that they are assumed by all sides to have the potential for
partisan effect: if they had no such effect, and if they were truly
communicators of impartial information about established legislation and
policy, there would be no need to invoke the 'caretaker' convention.
In a similar vein, former NSW Auditor-General, Mr
Recent audits of government advertising campaigns in NSW and Victoria
and in the Commonwealth have concluded, to employ the views of the Commonwealth
auditor-general, that there is a correlation between approaching general
elections and the amount of expenditure directed to government advertising.
In his audit of the government's GST advertising
campaign prior to the 1998 federal election, the Commonwealth Auditor-General
analysed the monthly expenditure on government advertising over the period from
1989-90 to 1997-98. The analysis showed that there were definite 'pre-election
spikes' in government advertising
spending. In the Auditor-General's words:
The patterns of expenditure shown ...could raise questions in
Parliament and the general community about the nature and purpose of government
advertising, particularly in the lead up to elections.
In his Research Note for the Parliamentary Library, Dr
also concluded that patterns of expenditure on government advertising 'support
this claim of pre-election spikes'. He said:
The 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001 federal elections were preceded by
sharp increases in government advertising outlays.
A number of witnesses expressed the view that this
pre-election spike in government advertising is of concern, not just because it
indicates that the advertising in question may be substantially politically
motivated, but also because it distorts the system of public funding of
Young considered that:
Massive spending on government ads is having a very damaging
impact on public confidence in politicians and the political process. It is
also a serious impediment to fair competition at elections. During an election,
the major parties spend around $13 – $16 million on political ads. When a party
can use government resources to spend over ten times that amount immediately
before an election, they are given a massive advantage over opponents. In an
era where media management and advertising are seen as crucial to elections,
government advertising has become one of the greatest perks of incumbency.
Orr said that:
The amounts of money involved [in government advertising prior
to elections] are staggering. They outstrip public funding of election
campaigns nine-fold. They thus threaten to outflank the system of public
funding of elections, introduced in 1983 to ensure a measure of political
equality between all parties and candidates, on the basis of their voter
Political use of advertising market
It is possible that this so-called 'incumbency benefit'
could extend beyond the benefits produced by the advertisements themselves.
Research conducted in the development and evaluation of particular advertising
campaigns is not made public. This leaves open at least the possibility that
such research may be used by the government to inform its party political
strategies. Professor Stephen
Bartos expressed this concern in the
Just as important as the actual advertising campaigns is the
market research commissioned by departments and agencies. Under the Guidelines 'the MCGC considers all
significant market research related to information programs or campaigns that
is either sensitive or has an expected value of $100,000 of more'. The research
might include surveys, focus groups, opinion polls or other means of evaluating
This information should arguably be made public, as an assurance
that it is not in fact being used to bolster party political opinion polling.
Similar market research is done by political parties, which use it to assist
them to develop and sell policies – this is a proper use for the parties' own
funds, not public monies. There is no evidence that government advertising
market research is used in this way – but equally, given it is kept
confidential, no evidence that it is not. Disclosure would provide the level of
The Committee notes that a related issue was discussed
by the Auditor-General in his 1998 audit about aspects of the Government's
pre-election GST advertising campaign. This concerned the approval for the use
of Commonwealth copyright material from publications about A New Tax System by
the Liberal and National Parties during the 1998 election campaign.
In his report, the Auditor-General noted that AusInfo
was the office within the Department of Finance and Public Administration which
administered the Commonwealth's copyright on the program materials developed
for the advertising campaign. On 31
August 1998, AusInfo received a request from the Liberal and
National parties to reproduce unlimited 'relevant' materials from four
publications about A New Tax System.
The publications were: The New Tax System – Working for Small Business; The New
Tax System – GST how it works; A New Tax System – Overview; and, A New Tax
AusInfo provided information to the ANAO indicating
that copyright requests normally take up to two weeks to process. In this case,
approval for the use of copyright was granted to the Liberal and National
parties the following day, on 1 September
The Auditor-General noted that the essential criterion
for assessing requests to grant Commonwealth copyright is whether the material
requested will be used for an appropriate and/or commercial use. As an election
campaign is not a commercial use, AusInfo decided that the licence arrangement
with normal copyright conditions could be used. According to the ANAO:
[t]he licensing of Commonwealth copyright for party-political
purposes during an election period is an issue beyond the capacity of the broad
criteria for assessment normally used for assessing requests for Commonwealth
copyright ... The current guidelines therefore allow material developed at
significant expense to the taxpayer to be used for party-political purposes
during an election period.
In his evidence to the Committee, however, the Special
Minister of State, Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz,
rejected the suggestion that any of his government's advertising campaigns have
been designed or used for political purposes. Indeed, he disputed both main
lines of argument employed by the critics of the government's advertising
practice. He disagreed that:
the content and style of certain advertisements
indicates that they have a primarily political purpose; and
the 'spikes' in expenditure are related in any
way to the timing of elections.
On the first point, Senator Abetz
said that the suggestion that any government advertising has a primarily
partisan political purpose is 'without any foundation':
Under the Howard Government, information campaigns are not for
party political purposes and to conflate the two is, at best, misleading and,
at worst, a slander on the name of those fine public servants who oversee the
entire process of information campaigns. There is no competition between the
two forms of advertising – they are entirely separate and do not cross into
each other's territory.
He complained that despite the claims made in some
submissions that some of the government's advertising had a primarily political
purpose, 'nobody has been able to come up with a definition of what might or
might not be party political'.
On the second point, Senator Abetz
argued that the spikes in expenditure on government advertising are related to
the timing of the budget cycle, not the timing of elections. He said:
Since 1996, Budgets take place in May and Federal Elections have
all taken place in the second half of the year ... Given the confidential nature
of Budget planning, policy proposals cannot be sent out for development by
advertising agencies before their release on Budget night. The announcement is
made in May, but Ministerial approval, research, development of a campaign and
finally MCGC approval may take several weeks or even months. Thus it is not
surprising to find that many Government campaigns take place in mid-to-late
year, but rather it is the expected outcome of the
policy-development-production-release timeline ... For that reason, those who
seek to read something sinister into the timing of campaigns in the last 6
months before an Election are pre-supposing a level of cynicism and
co-ordination that simply does not exist.
The plausibility of this argument is undermined by the
fact that the supposed 'post-Budget' spikes in government advertising
expenditure are occurring on a three-year cycle. In other words, it is only
after every third Budget that there is a spike in advertising expenditure and
these spikes, coincidentally enough, just happen to fall in federal election
The Committee has considered what threshold questions
would need to be satisfied in order to justify the considerable expenditure of
public funds on these activities. These threshold questions concern matters
such as the identified need within the community for the relevant information,
the most cost efficient and effective way of communicating with the target
audience, and the consideration of alternative methods of communication such as
media releases, green papers, letters to affected householders, and so on.
The Committee notes that these questions seem to be
considered, in the first instance, within the government departments and
agencies that have carriage of particular advertising campaigns. Reasoned
justifications of the need for or evaluation of the effectiveness of government
advertising campaigns are not routinely available on the public record.
On the basis of the information that is in the public
domain, therefore, the Committee is unable to satisfy itself that departments
adequately considered the threshold questions identified in every case. Further,
as will be discussed in the following chapter, the Committee is not satisfied
that the system for appropriating funds for government advertising provides any
restraint on government spending in this area.
By contrast, the Committee notes that the new
guidelines for government advertising adopted by the Canadian Government require the full public disclosure
of the reasons for particular campaigns, the target audience, the campaign
objectives and evaluation, and full disclosure of the campaign costs. They also include a commitment by
the Canadian government to reduce
spending on government advertising.
The Committee will return to these matters in Chapter 7, when it considers
possible reforms to the accountability framework for government advertising in
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