David Tune, Depart of Finance Secretary, during an estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The Rudd government in its dying weeks forced a senior public servant to approve a controversial taxpayer-funded campaign, despite questions being raised about it breaching the caretaker conventions.
"I had to obey, as a public servant, a legal direction and I did so," said the secretary of the Finance Department, David Tune, who gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on Thursday.
Mr Tune indicated he did not believe it was appropriate for the Rudd government to be running what the opposition said were election advertisements masquerading as "national security" advertisements.
Labor's advertisement to deter asylum seekers from making the journey to Australia by boat.
"I certainly felt that I could not take on the responsibility myself in the context of the caretaker conventions as I understood them and as my colleagues understood them," Mr Tune said.
"It was the domestic component I think that was the major issue," he added, referring to the advertisements in Australian newspapers that purported to target people smugglers.
The Coalition criticised the Rudd government at the time, saying the campaign was a blatant abuse of the caretaker conventions, which require the government to avoid involving the public service in their election activities.
But despite his hesitation, Mr Tune was ordered by the former special minister of state, Mark Dreyfus, to fund the $6.5 million advertising campaign to spruik Labor's tough new border protection policies.
Labor responded by claiming that the asylum seeker campaign needed to be continued during the election period "in the interests of national security".
The campaign, which ran overseas as well and continued from July to September last year, included full page advertisements in national newspapers. Asked about the campaign, Mr Tune said: "The then special minister of state basically said, 'I want you to authorise some advertising during the caretaker period,' that was sensitive.
"That was a legal direction to me and I obeyed that direction," he added.
Coalition senator Dean Smith asked Mr Tune whether he had encountered such a direction before in his long career in the public service.
"I've certainly not come across it myself in the past," the Finance secretary replied.
"So unique, exceptional, in your experience?" Senator Smith asked.
"Indeed," Mr Tune replied.
When they were criticised for the campaign, the Rudd government claimed it was targeting people smugglers. But MPs including the independent senator Nick Xenophon and the former shadow attorney general, George Brandis, were sceptical and questioned how many people smugglers read newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald.
Asked about Mr Tune's comments, a spokeswoman for Mr Dreyfus said: "The direction made by Mr Dreyfus as Special Minister of State was in accordance with caretaker conventions."
"It extended a number of government advertising campaigns including By Boat, No Visa, Defence Force Recruiting, International Fleet Review and Digital Switchover."