Image: Getty

Yesterday Crikey reported on an Australian Taxation Office Facebook post apparently singing the praises of the governments’ new tax system:

 

As it turns out, the ad campaign is run by Treasury. The “better tax” website is even more explicit: “The Australian Government is building a better tax system, so hard‑working Australians can keep more of their money … better for you, better for business, better for Australians”, we are informed.

What are the rules?

One of the “underlying principles” that rule over advertising for commonwealth agencies — for example, the ATO and Treasury —  is that “government campaigns must not be conducted for party political purposes”. The guidelines also say “campaigns must be presented in objective language and be free of political argument”.

So what does Treasury have to say about that? Crikey asked them:

1. Is it appropriate for Treasury to judge whether a new tax system is better or worse than it previously was?

2. How does this assessment interact with the advertising guidelines that bind non-corporate commonwealth entities like Treasury, and which requires that campaigns be “presented in objective language and be free of political argument”.

Treasury told Crikey only that “the campaign was reviewed by the Independent Communications Committee on government advertising and found to be compliant with the guidelines” and directed us to a fairly terse letter on the Department of Finance website. So it seems the paperwork is order.

Who is running Treasury?

The campaign leaves Treasury open to the accusation that it’s perceived politicisation will continues under new secretary Dr Steven Kennedy.

Kennedy was appointed to replace Liberal party warrior Phil Gaetjens who was plucked to be Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet by Morrison in July. Gaetjens is a former staffer to Liberal treasurers Peter Costello and Scott Morrison.

Kennedy, meanwhile, is a former economic adviser to Kevin Rudd and was a member of Julia Gillard’s parliament house. When Kennedy was appointed to Treasury, Scott Morrison made note of this.

“Steven has obviously worked on the Labor side; Phil has worked on the Coalition side. This is about merit. This is about people who know how to get a job done and people who’ve earned the respect for the roles that I believe they will now be able to serve in,” he said.

Kennedy has only effectively been in the role since September 2 — this “better tax”campaign is a parting gift from Gaetjens.

What’s the strategy here?

Andrew Hughes, a lecturer at the College of Business & Economics at Australian National University said that as the use of departments for politicised advertising was a bipartisan pursuit, it was unsurprising the campaign passed the legal framework, even if it failed the “reasonable person test”.

“And you know what will happen, as soon as Labor get in, we’ll see the same thing from them, they’ll say ‘the Libs have had their turn, and now it’s ours’,” he said. “So as much as I’d like to see reform in this area, I won’t hold my breath, because it benefits both parties to have it this way.”

Of course, the ad campaign — which is also running on TV and radio — is a continuation of the pre-election sloganeering which cost taxpayers $23 million. Hughes said this was possibly a sign of things to come.

“Every party does it in the lead up to an election, where they use the authority of a .gov.au website, as opposed to a party website, to sell their achievements, but it is unusual to see it continue after an election,” he said.

“But it’s a great way to control the air waves and really suck the air out of your opponents. We may well see this become the norm, for the governments to use these campaigns more and more outside of the election cycle.”

So, good news everyone: we’re gonna be paying for partisan advertising all the time, and like privacy laws, it suits both major parties to leave things as they are.

Do you think this advertising passes the reasonable person test? Write to [email protected] with your full name and your comments.