OPINION

Taxpayer-funded electioneering

As another election campaign gets under way, we brace for the usual deluge of political propaganda. Much of this barrage is paid for by the politicians themselves, principally through their party organisations, as a proper exercise of their democratic freedom of speech and communication.

Parliamentary allowances

The issue surfaced in February when the Coalition government extended the right of members of Parliament to spend their parliamentary allowances on radio and television advertising. Hitherto, MPs were entitled to spend their allowances on printed materials, to which was recently added advertising on social media, such as Facebook. But the rules had said these funds must not be used to produce or place content for broadcasting on television or radio.

Objections to the change were swift and fierce. Labor promised to try to block the practice before the election and, if it wasn't reversed, threatened to make politicians repay any money spent on such ads. One Nation, with its finger on the popular pulse, described the policy as "political bastardry" and worse.

In defence of the decision, ministers argued the change merely levelled the playing field, allowing MPs to choose which medium to use to convey their messages to the public. No extra funds would be allocated. The issue was one of recognising the changing media landscape. Particularly since the advent of social media, the exclusion of radio and television was outdated and anomalous. Moreover, the change would allow local media producers to benefit, particularly in the regions, as the main uptake would come from rural and regional MPs for whom postal communication was less effective. Better to spend locally rather than enrich the overseas multinationals that run social media.

Informing, spruiking or both?

Apart from which media MPs may spend their allowances on, the broader issue concerns the use of parliamentary entitlements to communicate with the electorate. Does such communication have a genuine informing purpose or is it intended primarily to enhance the member's standing with voters and, thus, their chances of re-election? The government rules, administered by the Finance Department, are disingenuous. They begin with a strong statement of principle, that "office budget expenditure on printing and communications must only be used for parliamentary or electorate purposes", which suggests electioneering matter is excluded. But they go on to embargo just two narrow categories of party-political spending: for party business or commercial purposes, and for the production of how-to-vote material. Other types of material with a predominantly political purpose are, by implication, permitted.

Admittedly, it isn't easy to distinguish between matters of genuine concern to constituents and political propaganda. Indeed, many actions by elected government politicians have a dual purpose: both to advance the public interest and to increase incumbent politicians' popularity. That's how democracy works. But most voters can tell when they are subjected to political ads masquerading as meaningful communication. That the advertising is paid for by the long-suffering taxpayer compounds the offence.

Impartial?

The misuse of public funds to pay for election material happens not only in local electorates but also on the national stage, with the increasing number of expensive advertising campaigns extolling almost every area of government activity. Using persuasive images and emotive language ("building" this, "powering" that), they aim to create a positive attitude and warm feelings of gratitude towards the incumbent government for simply doing its job. The ads pay lip service to the informing function, briefly pointing out what action we can take or directing us to websites where we can find out more should we feel inclined. But the overwhelming purpose is clearly to make us feel good about the government, especially in an election year.

Government advertising campaigns are subject to a comprehensive general policy, which sets out several principles, including that campaigns should: be "relevant to government responsibilities"; "be justified and undertaken in an efficient and effective manner"; be "presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner"; and "not be directed at promoting party political interests". Responsibility is divided between ministers, who approve campaigns in principle, and departments, which implement them. Campaigns costing more than $250,000 are vetted by a three-member independent communications committee to ensure they comply with the principles. The committee reports its decisions online while the Finance Department, which administers the policy, also publishes details of all campaigns.

Electioneering continues

The policy has been partially effective. The Howard-era excesses are no longer possible. Though Labor made egregious use of a special-circumstances exemption in 2010 (on the mineral resources rent tax) and in 2013 (on offshore processing of boat people), on the whole, the level of partisanship and electioneering has been reduced. Nonetheless, the partisan purpose still remains dominant in many of the ads. The recognisable spike in advertising spending before elections (see chart) bears this out.

There can be little objection to ads that have a clear and justifiable informing purpose (for example, on changes to tax rules) or are designed to alter behaviour in uncontroversial directions (for example, on smoking or domestic violence). Indeed, most campaigns fall into these categories.

But those that simply spruik general government policies are much more questionable. How can the public servants managing these campaigns and the independent communications committee's members genuinely believe the campaigns are "objective" and "not directed at promoting party political interests"?

<em></em> Photo: Ron Tandberg

Photo: Ron Tandberg

The offence often lies in the emotive language used. Here, it's noteworthy that the committee's approval process seems to cover the planning stage of advertising campaigns rather than the finished product. Each compliance advice regularly includes a statement that the "committee's view has been formed at the communication strategy stage, and it has not considered the advertising materials, which have yet to be developed. For this reason, the committee has concluded that the proposed campaign is capable of complying with principles 1 to 4 of the guidelines" (emphasis added).

This approach hardly meets public expectations that a vigorous vetting process will weed out all partisan misuse of advertising funds. If the intentions behind these rules are to realised, both the committee and departmental secretaries, who retain responsibility for implementing ad campaigns, need to take a much more honest and robust approach to applying the rules. Conniving at such misappropriation is incompatible with their role as impartial stewards of democratic integrity.

Politicians' obvious misuse of taxpayer funds to improve their electoral prospects is yet another instance of the low-level corruption that reduces public trust in government. The next parliament, whoever holds office, offers an opportunity to tackle a number of these running sores, including the general issue of political donations. While much hope is naturally placed in the creation of an anti-corruption commission, a commission on its own will be unable to deliver the legislative and administrative changes necessary to clean up the use and abuse of party finances. Here, prime responsibility will fall on Parliament, particularly independents and crossbenchers for whom these issues are tailor-made.

Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor at the ANU's Crawford school of public policy. richard.mulgan@anu.edu.au