Apart from what it hopes will be a narrowing in the polls, a key reason for the Government to delay an election is the need to extract full value from its current stock of advertising. This Government not only invests hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising itself, but devotes considerable resources to controlling every detail of that advertising.

In his first term, the Prime Minister made a little-noticed but significant internal reform: the Government Communications Unit was shifted from the Department of Finance to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, thereby centralising political control over all Government advertising. It also established the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications (MCGC), currently chaired by Gary Nairn, through which several key backbenchers and members of the PM’s staff oversee all advertising.

The Government piously claims that the MCGC was established “to ensure that all government information activities meet the information needs of the community.” In fact its sole purpose is to ensure that all information activities meet the political needs of the Government, through control over all elements of Government advertising.

This is fine-grained stuff, and consumes enormous administrative resources across the public service. All decisions on market research, media purchasing and ad design and production for any campaign, no matter the size or purpose, have to be signed off by the MCGC. And it is not unknown for a finished television ad that has been ticked off right through this tortuous process to be sent back for reshooting because an MCGC member has taken a sudden dislike to it.

After all, it’s only taxpayers’ money.

Of course, for any advertising campaigns that have to be run jointly with the States, there’s a major problem. Most State and Territory Governments now have similar high-level committees that play the same role as the MCGC. Cross-jurisdictional advertising campaigns are now an administrative and political nightmare.

This is the reason a major preventative health campaign, intended to combat the obesity epidemic, has been stymied since COAG announced it in early 2006. The money is there for the “Australian Better Health Initiative”, but the Commonwealth insists that it have final say over the advertising campaign.

The States, particularly as the election has loomed closer, have refused to cooperate, suspicious that the campaign will be tailored to fit the Government’s re-election strategy. It’s not unheard-of – remember all those skin cancer ads run by the NSW Government before the March election? Any Government that’s against cancer can’t be ALL bad, right?

There’s an upside for the Government in the delay, though. In the absence of a campaign telling Australians to get off their backsides and get active, they’ll be vegetating in front of their television sets – perfectly placed to see plenty of other Government ads.

Peter Fray

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