Paul Keating famously told us that “when you change the government, you change the country”. At the time it was a sensible, even prescient warning, but as a generalisation it’s at best a half truth. Most changes in government bring less change than people imagine; continuity is the rule, not the exception. But real change does sometimes happen, and politics is a major driving force.

Both lessons are on display in the controversy over government-funded political advertising. The Age this week has been running hard against the Brumby government on the issue, with an op-ed piece by an outraged Tom Ormonde on Monday, followed by a front-page Paul Austin story yesterday.

This is, to put it mildly, not new. Four years ago, then-Opposition leader Robert Doyle was making exactly the same complaints. As I put it at the time, some of the ads were “simply a catalogue of government achievements, almost indistinguishable from the sort of thing that would run during an election campaign — except that then, the ALP would have to pay for it.”

But governments keep doing it: state and federal, Labor and coalition. And voters rarely make them pay any price for it.

However, although abuse of government advertising is of long standing, things have changed. There used to be a degree of restraint, even coyness, which is now missing. Twenty years ago, the sort of blatantly political advertising that is now common would have been all but unthinkable: the Cain Labor government and its Hamer Liberal predecessor sometimes bent the rules in their favor, but nothing like what we are seeing today.

At least in Victoria, it was the Kennett government, with a huge parliamentary majority and a disdain for established conventions, that started the change. I recall sitting in on meetings in that government to discuss the advertising strategy to promote electricity privatisation; there was no pretence that it was anything other than partisan advocacy, but the taxpayers were picking up the tab.

A few years later, the Howard government went one better by advertising a policy that hadn’t even been legislated for – the “unchain my heart” GST campaign before the 1998 election.

Kennett’s arrogance was eventually punished by the voters, although it took two elections. The GST campaign was also a failure; the majority voted to turf out the Howard government, but our capricious electoral system kept it alive. Yet nothing seems to have deterred their successors, and John Brumby will presumably take his high standing in the polls as an endorsement of his strategy.

Ormonde says: “the political hardheads obviously calculate that the free plugs are worth far more than any trouble they bring”, but I’m not sure that’s true. Just as much commercial advertising is clearly useless, boosting the egos of management rather than selling product (a result of the split between corporate ownership and control), I suspect that governments often promote themselves because they can, rather than because of any results it brings.

Peter Fray

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