Elections have a funny impact on the Liberal and National parties — for a gang of politicians who claim that they have “surpluses in our DNA”, they have no compunction in raiding the public purse to try to remain in power. In fact the three highest advertising spends by a federal government have come in Coalition governments — two under those paragons of fiscal virtue John Howard and Peter Costello and the latest on our newly reborn conservative clone, Malcolm Turnbull.

Figures released yesterday show the latest taxpayer-financed ad splurge. The government spent $174.7 million over the past financial year on 25 campaigns, up almost 40% on the previous year, which wasn’t an election year.

The last time it was at similar levels was in 2007-08, when the advertising spend hit $185.3 million. That’s when the last coalition government of John Howard was clinging to power before the 2007 poll.

The biggest contributors to the 2015-16 bill were the federal election ($43.3 million), Defence Force recruiting ($31.4 million) and the national innovation and science agenda ($14.9 million — that was Turnbull’s agile and nimble period before he became a born-again Tony Abbott). The election advertising spend came to $51 million when market research, public relations and direct mail were added to the figure. The Finance Department report said the campaign was needed to inform voters of changes to the Senate voting system and encourage participation in the election.

But last year and 2007-08 were not the all-time records — 1999-2000 was the all-time high, with $186.8 million spent, according to a report in 2012 from the Federal Parliamentary Library.

That wasn’t an election year; 2001 was. But July 1, 2000 was the start date for John Howard’s biggest political gamble, the GST, and we all needed to be educated about its virtues, otherwise John Howard was in trouble the next year. The ad spend obviously worked because John Howard won the 2001 poll with a national security scare campaign and the refugees on the Tampa.

But if you you look a little further at the spending in the table in the library’s report you find that John Howard and Peter Costello spent another $133.2 million in 2000-01 — making the two-year spend to remain in power (by explaining to us the GST and other vital policy ideas) a massive $320 million. And fast forward to 2006-07 when Howard and Costello knew they were in trouble and needed to spend to try and hang on, ad spending totalled $170.1 million. That’s a total of $355.4 million. — Glenn Dyer

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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