Questionable ... Part of the Gillard government's TV advertisement on the mining tax in 2010.
The government's saturation advertising campaign announcing its new asylum-seeker policy drew strong criticism for its alleged purpose as propaganda in the upcoming election.
For example, independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon attacked the advertisements as going well beyond any legitimate purpose to inform the people smugglers, their supporters and prospective clients. The advertisements were clearly aimed at Australian voters, not the smugglers, he said. ''I didn't realise The Adelaide Advertiser had such huge home delivery in the outer suburbs of Jakarta.'' He urged the Auditor-General to investigate the issue as a matter of urgency.
If the sole objective was to communicate forcibly to people smugglers and their customers, a much lower-key campaign would have sufficed.
Greens leader Christine Milne agreed, arguing the government had no justification in using a supposed ''national emergency'' to circumvent the guidelines on government advertising.
The Gillard government's TV ad for the household assistance package, which omitted any mention of the carbon tax.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott described the campaign as ''a cynical political boast''. He reminded us that, in 2007, Kevin Rudd, then in opposition, had described government political advertising as a ''cancer on democracy'' and had vowed to rein it in. Indeed, the present policy and guidelines on government advertising are the result of Rudd's earlier commitment.
Does the current asylum-seeker campaign indicate that the policy on government advertising is ineffective? The policy itself went through a number of versions during the first Rudd government. The main focus has been on major campaigns, worth more than $250,000, which were originally subject to external scrutiny by the Auditor-General. However, departmental secretaries objected to the cumbersome nature of the Australian National Audit Office's audit and the Auditor-General himself, Ian McPhee, had never been happy about being dragged into the politically contentious area of deciding whether advertisements should go ahead. After a review by Dr Allan Hawke in 2010, the policy was revised to remove the Auditor-General from the frontline and to substitute an expert committee of former senior public servants - the independent communications committee - of which Hawke became chairman. Since 2011, departments have also been helped by a peer review group, chaired by the departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance, which provide advice from communications specialists.
The Auditor-General's role, meanwhile, has been changed to a more appropriate post-audit function, investigating whether the policy had been applied properly. The most recent audit, on selected campaigns in the period from August 2011 to March 2013, was published in June. Government advertising, like discretionary grants, is an area where the Auditor-General has kept a particularly sharp lookout for potential abuse of public money for partisan political purposes.
The full-page advertisement announcing the government's new asylum-seeker policy.
The present policy still applies to campaigns over $250,000, which must meet certain principles, including that: campaigns should be relevant to government responsibilities; campaign materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner; and the materials should be objective and not directed at promoting party-political interests.
The policy also allows the Special Minister of State to exempt a campaign from compliance with the guidelines ''on the basis of a national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reason''. The government is relying on this provision in its current campaign on asylum seekers. According to a spokeswoman for the Special Minister of State, Mark Dreyfus, the government is using ''extreme urgency'' to justify exempting the campaign from the guidelines.
In this particular case, the government can reasonably claim urgency as a reason to bypass the normal, time-consuming procedure of vetting by the independent communications committee, as well as consultation with the peer review group. Speed is an essential part of the new policy, which had to be widely promulgated as soon as possible in order to deter prospective asylum seekers from arriving by boat.
Arguably, however, an exemption on the ground of urgency should apply only to the right to dispense with the normal procedure. It should not also give a government licence to disregard the guidelines' principles governing the actual content of government advertising, such as the obligations to be objective and to avoid promoting political interests. As currently worded, the exemption clause gives a blanket exemption from all aspects of the guidelines, not just the vetting procedures - a loose formulation that provides governments with a potentially convenient loophole.
The exemption clause has been invoked once before, in 2010, also an election year. The government claimed urgency for its campaign to promote the mineral resources rent tax, a decision that caused some embarrassment, coming only a few months after the much-vaunted adoption of the new guidelines on government advertising. In this case, the real reason for the urgency was largely political, to counter the mining industry's well-funded protest against the tax. As the Auditor-General pointed out in a subsequent audit of the government's advertisements, the Treasury, though officially exempt from the guidelines, did make a reasonable attempt to comply with the principles within the time available. The eventual campaign, though prepared under severe time pressure, did not seriously breach the main principles of the policy.
Whether the government has made similar attempts to comply with the spirit of the guidelines in the current advertisements awaits further investigation by an eventual ANAO audit. The actual content of the advertisements does not appear in obvious breach of the guidelines. Some critics have objected to overly emotive footage of distressed asylum seekers in TV ads screened overseas. But powerful images are routine in government television advertising (think anti-smoking ads). The text in the local newspaper advertisements is bald and direct: ''if you come here by boat without a visa, you won't be settled in Australia''.
The most potent objection is to the blanket coverage. The main reason for blitzing all domestic media outlets to such an extent is surely to impress Australian voters that the government is acting decisively. If the sole objective was to communicate the message forcibly to people smugglers and their customers, a much lower-key campaign would have sufficed. The major players in the market have always been very well tuned in to the latest twists and turns of asylum-seeker policy and its implementation, including the outcome of recent legal challenges. A single strong announcement, duly reported in the national media, would probably have sufficed.
Such an objection may be hard to substantiate, particularly when communicating the policy is so central to the policy's chances of success. Judging from its recent audit of selected campaigns, the ANAO is fully alert to the tendency of governments to ''push the boundaries'' of the guidelines, especially the requirement ''to provide objective, factual and explanatory information, free from partisan promotion of government policy and political argument''. For example, it criticised the earlier campaign to promote the household assistance package on the ground that it omitted all reference to the introduction of a carbon price and therefore failed to fully inform the public about the reason for government aid.
It also queried government advertising of the national broadband network, given that NBN Co is a commercial government business enterprise with its own capacity to advertise for custom. In this case, government advertising about the network's virtues might appear as unnecessary duplication and therefore questionable on grounds of ''overall efficiency''. The audit does not directly mention any political motives for such inefficient spending, but the inference is clear.
Similar reasoning could be applied to the asylum-seeker advertising blitz. If it is judged to be more extensive than is needed for the purpose of communicating information to interested parties, it could be criticised as a waste of public funds, and by implication an abuse of taxpayer funds for political purposes.
In general, as is evident from the ANAO's reports, the policy and guidelines on government advertising are yielding some minor but not insignificant benefits at the margins. Departments are forced to check all factual statements in advertisements and to avoid the more blatant forms of propaganda. Their budgeting and purchase of access to media outlets are scrutinised carefully.
But on the broader issue of government abuse of taxpayer-funded advertising for partisan purposes, Rudd's ''cancer'' continues unabated. The history of Labor's failed attempt to stamp it out indicates an absence of political will on both sides of politics. The temptation to court the voters' good opinion with their own money is just too strong.
Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.