The debate about political advertising in Australia has been a noisy one this year, with the Howard government’s ad blitz raising questions about what constitutes an appropriate level of expenditure and where the line between public education and party politics should be drawn.

Now, perhaps following the PM’s lead, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon has danced down the pitch in a bid to smack out of the park any public opposition to his beloved pulp mill.

Lennon fronted the TV cameras on Sunday night, telling Tasmanian viewers that the government had received “two independent reports that tell us we can have a world class pulp mill that’s good for our economy and safe for our environment. But,” Lennon adds, “the decision is not mine.” A useful reminder.

Speaking to Radio National’s Breakfast program this morning, Associate Professor Richard Herr from the School of Government at the University of Tasmania threw some cold water on the eager Premier’s claims:

The fact is that the two reports are not nearly as clear as the government claims they are…The Sweco Pic one, the primary one, was very limited, and it didn’t take public input into [account]. Indeed, it was told not to go beyond the information that had been provided for it by Gunns or that it could ask for from Gunns. This has left a lot people nervous and uncertain. Therefore the government’s enthusiasm seems to be a part of the tactic of skating over the assessment process and getting on with the approval process.

But will an aggressive advertising campaign work? Or will it alert people to the many criticisms surrounding the approval process?

“Politicians seem increasingly willing to take that risk,” Dr Sally Young, Senior lecturer in Culture and Communications at Melbourne University, told Crikey this morning.

“When people are asked about what they think, they inevitably say they don’t like their money spent on glossy promotional political ads. They don’t like the political ads they see during election either, but (ads like the Tasmanian one) are particularly disliked.

“But if governments continue to run these sort of ads they must think that they work…And because it’s not their money they are spending, it’s an attractive strategy. I think they do think it works, particularly on softening up an electorate before an election.” Or before an important vote.

Figures compiled by the Democratic Audit of Australia show the growth in political advertising (in $millions) over the last thirty years.


Source: Political Finance in Australia: a skewed and secret system, by Sally Young and Joo-Cheong Tham

Howard’s 2007 ad spend, including the recent superannuation brochure, printed in colour and hand-delivered to more than 7 million Australia households, would be off the scale.

Lennon’s TV campaign weighs in at a relatively modest $300,000, plus full page newspaper ads. The value of that investment — and Lennon’s other good work for Gunns — will be tested on 21 August, when the project is voted on by the Tasmanian parliament.