Here we go again. The Gillard government now has to defend not only its carbon pricing plan, but also its apparent hypocrisy in spending some $25 million of taxpayers’ money to promote it, including $12 million on a television advertising campaign that began began last night — despite repeated promises when in opposition that Labor would end this sort of practice.

While I said last year that “governments often promote themselves because they can, rather than because of any results it brings” (which I still think is true), this is unlikely to be such a case. The government and its advisers would not be willing to weather the attacks this will bring unless they thought the ads were desperately needed and likely to be effective.

But the problem with allegations of hypocrisy is that those who make them are frequently guilty of the same inconsistency in reverse. This ad campaign joins a long and ignoble list reaching back at least to Paul Keating’s “One Nation” campaign of the early 1990s, through the infamous GST and WorkChoices ads of the Howard government, and numerous state equivalents such as the Bracks government’s “building a world-class Victoria” publicity spree.

It would help Tony Abbott’s case if he was on record somewhere as critical of such advertising when his own side of politics was doing it.

Good luck trying to find that.

Of course, saying that someone else does it too is not a very convincing defence of wrongdoing. The government has two other points to make: first, that by the standards of past campaigns this is a relatively modest sum (the WorkChoices campaign is supposed to have cost $100 million), and secondly that the advertising contains factual information rather than feel-good advocacy.

Both defences are valid, but at best they go to mitigation rather than justification. $25 million is still by most people’s standards a lot of money, and any campaign that advertises a policy before it’s approved by parliament must be regarded at least in part as advocacy.

It’s fair to say that it could be worse. Certainly this is not as egregious as the GST campaign, which advertised the policy before the election that was going to determine whether or not it would ever be legislated. It’s still, however, very much the sort of thing that we all thought Kevin Rudd had promised to put a stop to.

A further possible justification, which the government has not made explicitly but that its former finance minister Lindsay Tanner raises in his book Sideshow, is that changes in the workings of the media in recent times make advertising such as this necessary. If the media can’t be relied on to report facts but instead are off running partisan advocacy of their own then the government, it is said, needs to resort to advertising to get the facts out.

I think the premise of this argument is quite true. The media’s performance on the carbon price has been abysmal, and one media group in particular seems to have made the attack on climate science into its personal mission. Facts are certainly needed.

But the conclusion doesn’t follow. This is still a political battle, and we don’t elect governments to wage political battles, we elect them to govern. If there’s partisan advocacy to be done, partisan organisations should be doing it: political parties and interest groups, not taxpayer-funded spin machines.

The problem is that it’s not just the media that have changed; political parties have changed as well. Once they were community organisations, full of committed citizens organised around particular interests or ideologies. But the decline of social capital (or at least old-fashioned forms of it) has put paid to that.

Instead, parties have become used to having the taxpayer pick up the tab for things that they used to pay for themselves: not just public funding of election campaigns, but more and more blatant and extravagant allowances for printing, postage and the like that go to political purposes, and larger and larger taxpayer-funded staffs that engage more and more in partisan activity.

The waste of money, although serious, is not the worst of this; more serious is the way that we are losing the whole notion of a party sector separate from government. Without that, we will lose one of the fundamental bulwarks of democracy — and that’s even more important than whether we end up with a carbon price.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW