The media blackout on election advertising in the electronic media kicks in next Wednesday. So all overt political campaigning is out. But what about the series of public service campaigns subliminally reminding Australians of government initiatives?

For example, the anti-terror campaign which encourages Australians to report strange goings on to the National Security Hotline. “Every details helps”, run the ads authorised by AFP Commissioner Keelty.

Nothing suspect here apparently. The decision to run them during the election campaign is “a coincidence and enjoys bipartisan support”, write Paul Maley and Lara Sinclair in The Australian today. But as they also point out, “national security is often considered a policy area that favours incumbent governments.” And woe betide an opposition that looks soft on terror.

We asked the AEC if the anti-terror ad constituted “election advertising” for the sake of the blackout. They told us to contact ACMA, which administers the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. ACMA told us it was the responsibility of individual broadcasters to determine whether advertising is political for the purposes of the act. It will only investigate if there’s suggestion of a breach; ACMA doesn’t vet ads ahead of time. An election ad can be one that “contains election matter that relates to that election”. Right.

The anti-terror campaign is in fact just one of eight public information campaigns getting an airing in the run-up to the poll, says The Oz. Others include quarantine, equine influenza, defence recruitment and drought assistance. Interestingly, the more innocuous drought and quarantine campaigns are authorised by the “Commonwealth/Australian Government” while the equine influenza support announcement is not tagged at all.

The Keelty endorsement (watch the ad here) feels oddly political — a result no doubt of his recent entanglement in politics over the Haneef matter and previously David Hicks’ case. The Australian editorial put it this way in October:

The Haneef affair is clearly not the finest hour either for Mr Andrews or Mr Keelty. At best, both men appear to have attempted to use Dr Haneef’s plight for political advantage. It would not be the first time the Howard Government has sought to take advantage of a national security scare. Mr Keelty’s support for the Government in seeking a control order over terror trainee David Hicks when he is released from jail will no doubt be viewed by some through the same prism. Unfortunately, this is what many in the community have come to expect. But politicisation of the role of AFP Commissioner is a worrying trend that, if left unchecked, threatens to undermine public confidence in the force’s good work.

In fact it’s difficult not to view the ad, and Keelty’s authorisation, through this prism. But it’s more perception than reality. Phase three of the national security campaign — now showing — was launched in August 2007, pre-Haneef. And Howard and Keelty haven’t always seen eye to eye on terrorism matters.

And perhaps his tagging is a return to more traditional authorisations. As Graeme Orr noted in 2006, “It is curious that recent campaigns, such as anti-smoking and bush fire awareness, have been tagged with government authorisations. Since they are clearly not political or electoral matter, tagging is not legally required.” It’s more about an executive wishing to  “accrue the PR benefits for itself as a political entity and build the ‘corporate image’ of government as a whole.” Because “Australian Government” is understood by ordinary people as referring to the executive of the day, Orr advocates that “government advertising be authorised not by a brand, but by an office: the title of the responsible minister or agency.”

Meanwhile, for cheeky government branding, nothing beats Peter Costello’s pamphlet pumping the benefits of the “Coalition Government’s funding of the cervical cancer vaccine”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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