Comment

Political parties should use their own money to advertise policies

If a political party in government wants to trumpet the virtues of its policies it should use party money, not taxpayers' money, writes Crispin Hull.

The brass plaques are everywhere – on bridges, hospitals, schools, highways and also on additions and extensions to them. They are on telecommunications towers, railway stations, bus interchanges, airports, ports, fire stations, police stations and sports stadiums. On virtually every bit of infrastructure that any drop of public money helped build.

And each one of them invariably carries the name of a minister, an MHR, MLA, MLC or senator – the person who "officially opened" the piece of infrastructure, usually on a date more suited to the politician's diary than the date the infrastructure was first used.

The opening of a piece of infrastructure is a politician's prize opportunity for self-aggrandisement, even if the project was the brainchild of a previous government and created by architects, engineers and builders who had nothing to do with politics.

The public is only too well aware that government money gets spent on infrastructure and that without it the nation would hardly function.

Yet, unlike the very public and publicised opening of completed infrastructure, the awarding by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development of a $305,910 contract to the Wallis Consulting Group for what it described as "Market Research – Building Our Future" received no big public announcement – just the legally required listing of all government contracts.

This "research" will be a precursor to an advertising campaign with a budget of up to $18 million ostensibly to tell us about the importance of infrastructure – as if all those brass plaques did not exist. As if all the industries that build and use infrastructure and all the state and territory governments are not incessantly baying at the federal government for infrastructure money.

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Governments of all political persuasions in Australia spend vast amounts of money advertising themselves. This week the government said it would spend $28 million advertising its innovation policies.

The Hawke-Keating government started the big spend. The Coalition – after condemning it from Opposition – made it an art form in office, and it has continued by both sides ever since.

There are guidelines. They were updated by the Department of Finance last February. They say government advertising "must not be conducted for party political purposes".

The trouble is that the guidelines are inconsistent because they also say "governments may legitimately use public funds to explain government policies, programs or services, to inform members of the public of their obligations, rights and entitlements, to encourage informed consideration of issues or to change behaviour".

Of course, explaining policies (as distinct from enacted legislation) "to encourage informed consideration" is tantamount to party political propaganda, especially if the Opposition has different policies. The Opposition does not get access to public funds to put its alternative policies.

The guidelines should remove the word "policies" and restrict government advertising to giving the public information about enacted government programs and services which affect entitlements, rights and obligations.

If a political party in government wants to trumpet the virtues of its policies it should use party money, not taxpayers' money.

There is no need for an infrastructure advertising campaign. Indeed, it is likely to be counter-productive. It will just encourage sloppy policy under which projects are funded according to political rather than economic considerations.

We thought all that was changing when Malcolm Turnbull reversed Tony Abbott's political edicts made without reference to economics that government money should not be invested in wind energy or urban rail.

Invariably, Labor favours urban and public infrastructure and the Coalition favours rural and private infrastructure. The best Labor train has a passenger on it in a city. The best Coalition train has goods on it in the bush. In fact, both can be either good or bad, depending on whether the economic, safety and environmental considerations stack up.

But for about three decades the single-member electorate system damned Australia to wasteful, inappropriate, misplaced infrastructure spending while more sensible projects went begging.

Perhaps the prime example was the building of the $360 million Headquarters Joint Operations Command in 2008 in the very marginal seat of Eden-Monaro, inconveniently located 30 kilometres or so from where most of the employees live – in the safe Labor seats of the ACT.

Rural assistance programs for Coalition seats during the Howard government. Sports rorts for Labor seats during the Keating government. Economically and environmentally irresponsible freeways in Melbourne during the Napthine government in Victoria. It goes on.

Australia is just beginning to unwind this nonsense with more economically rigorous guidelines being applied by Infrastructure Australia. IA has been busily listing infrastructure according national and economic priority, not parochial and political considerations.

The money is too precious to be wasted on advertising campaigns and projects with poor economic and social return.

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Speaking of infrastructure, there are far too many cries for more, more, more. The cries go along the lines of we must provide more infrastructure to keep up with the demands of a growing population. We need to start changing this thinking to: we must reduce population growth to match the ever-shrinking capacity (economic and environmental) to provide infrastructure.

The trouble is there is so much uncritical institutional and business support for population growth.

A good example is the Productivity Commission's draft report on Migrant Intake. Submissions are still open. The draft flies in the face of logic and fact. It talks about "sustainable" population growth. No population growth is sustainable indefinitely. Eventually it has to stop because the land area is finite. But the report is silent about when the growth should stop and what Australia's population should be when it does.

Further, it says, "Most opinion polling suggests that the community as a whole is relatively comfortable about current levels of immigration and population growth."

This is no longer the case, if it ever was. A survey done for Sustainable Population Australia late last year had 51 per cent of voters saying Australia does not need more people (with congestion cited as a major reason) and a further 20 per cent wanting it kept under 30 million.

That tells us that 70 per cent are not comfortable with current levels of population growth.

Let's hope the commission's final report reflects that view.

www.crispinhull.com.au

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