From 1996
to 2003, Australian federal, state and territory governments spent
around $3 billion on advertising. Given the political advantages this
has brought them the appetite for reform has not been great.
Unsurprisingly, given the massive commercial benefit this has delivered
to the Australian media, there has been little sustained media analysis
of where these taxpayers’ funds are going, how well they are being
used, and whether it is justified or not.

The latest Howard
Government IR ads are just one of the more blatant examples (along with
the $100 million plus spent on the GST ads) of what’s wrong with the
system. Michelle Grattan in The Age has suggested that the
government spends the money and does what it does “because it can.” But
making it so they can’t is actually quite easy – it’s just a matter of
following some appropriate regulations from other democracies around
the world.

Dr Sally Young of Melbourne University has
extensively researched these alternatives, along with the costs of
Australian advertising, over a number of years. Her book The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Advertising
(Pluto Press 2004) contains a set of recommendations – based on best
practice elsewhere – on regulating election advertising. They include
basing political party public funding on membership rather than votes;
imposing an obligation on commercial TV to provide free time for
political broadcasts as part of licence agreements; truth in political
advertising legislation; and bans on paid political advertising in
conjunction with reforms to encourage media diversity.

In the
book and in a series of submissions to the 2004 Senate Committee
Inquiry into Government Advertising she also makes some suggestions
for government advertising. They include annual reports on government
advertising; annual reports on public opinion research; a stated target
for reduction in government advertising spending; Auditor-General
scrutiny of the content of government ads before they are released;
guidelines preventing misuse of government advertising for partisan
purposes; legislation prohibiting misuse of appropriated funds for
propaganda designed to aid a political party or candidates; and
imposing “public interest” licence requirements on broadcasters so that
they donate free time for government advertising of a community/public
service nature.

A dangerous and radical set of recommendations?
Eric Abetz seemed to think so when he gave evidence to the Senate
Inquiry, underscoring his concern by pointing out that Dr Young was
biased because she once worked for the ALP for three months. In fact,
the recommendations are simply an amalgam of existing regulation in
Canada, the US, the UK and New Zealand. So why is it so hard in
Australia?

Peter Fray

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