The precipitate fall in Government advertising under the Rudd Government has been confirmed by the first of the Government’s reports on advertising expenditure.

Last year the Government committed to biannual reports on advertising, as well as a new framework for government campaigns that ended control by Government MPs and required the sign-off of the Auditor-General that advertising is non-political and complies with guidelines. Control of the advertising process has also been shifted out of Prime Minister and Cabinet and into the Department of Finance.

The first six-monthly report includes campaign expenditure from the Government’s Central Advertising System only. Full-year reports will also include money spent researching and developing campaigns. The first report also includes historical data which demonstrates the extent of the Howard Government’s profligacy, with $152m spent on campaigns alone in the second half of 2007, following more than $100m in the first half.

The historical data also reveal the Howard Government’s growing love affair with advertising over the course of its life, commencing with significant cutbacks in 1997, then a surge in 1999 and 2000 to spruik the GST, with more than $180m being spent in 1999-00 on campaigns like the notoriously annoying “Unchain My Heart” ads. That’s nearly a quarter of a billion in current dollars in one year.

The Government’s campaign-only spend in July-Dec 2008 was $53.2m, with just under a quarter being ADF recruitment ads. This was the only substantial TV expenditure ($11.2m) from the Government — in fact, unusually, less than half of the total spend was on TV — demonstrating the magnitude of the collapse of Government revenue for TV networks from the boom election year of 2007.

Penny Wong’s much-criticised climate change ads cost $8.3m, including $2.9m for TV ads and the long-delayed joint Commonwealth-State preventative health campaign, the Australian Better Health Initiative, which was stymied by the Howard Government because it wanted full control of the campaign in an election year, finally rolled out as well, with $4.2m in TV ads.

Over time, the Government will doubtless find more excuses to advertise. But it has placed the ANAO right in the middle of any temptations to blatant partisanship, and its own figures will give away how much it is spending and where.