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May 28, 2014

The partisan PM&C site that may have broken the law

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has been pinged uploading partisan material in potential breach of the Electoral Act, Labor's John Faulkner has found.

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A website run by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has been hosting Liberal advertising election material that appears to breach the Commonwealth Electoral Act, in an apparent violation of the government’s own rules for partisan material.

The possible breach of both internal government guidelines and electoral laws was uncovered by Labor Senator John Faulkner yesterday in estimates hearings of the Finance and Public Administration committee.

The government’s Guidelines for Ministerial and Agency Websites warns agencies that:

“Agency-funded websites should not contain material of a party political nature, although individual judgement will be required. For example, a minister’s explanation and defence of government policy might draw distinctions between Government and Opposition policies. Such material may be placed on a ministerial website funded by an agency. However, material that relates solely to party political issues or that could be categorised as ‘how to vote’ material may not be placed on an agency-funded site.”

As PM&C officials explained to Faulkner yesterday, the department pays for and administers the prime minister’s website, pm.gov.au. That site contains prime ministerial media releases, videos, transcripts and speeches — all, self-evidently, of a highly political nature, but all within the guideline given it is a ministerial website of the kind all public service departments run for ministers.

However, on April 30, a page “A Message from the Prime Minister — WA Senate Election” was added to the site, which was a simple exhortation to WA voters to vote Liberal.

“Only a vote for the Liberal Party will deliver a team that will stand-up and deliver a better deal for Western Australia,” the page concludes.

The page appears blatantly in breach of the Department Finance’s guidelines given the material is not a transcript or speech, but simple election material.

Worse, it appears to breach section 328A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which makes it an offence if an online electoral advertisement is published and “the name and address of the person who authorised the advertisement do not appear at the end of the advertisement”. There’s no authorisation material anywhere on the page.

PM&C were unable to explain how the material complied with either the government’s own guidelines or the Electoral Act, and said no checking had been done on the content — they simply uploaded whatever material was provided by the Prime Minister’s Office. They would, they assured Faulkner, take his questions on notice, meaning the issue would not be resolved for several months until answers from this session of estimates are provided — usually just ahead of the next estimates session.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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