Jim Reed is not a household name, nor is his company, Resolve Strategic.
Which is why it has raised more than a few eyebrows that his business, registered to a PO Box in Glebe, is running a million-dollar marketing campaign that is helping shape key parts of the Morrison government’s economic policy.
It’s all part of what analysts say is the Morrison government’s obsession with polling, market research and advertising to push its message to voters who will be crucial in the next federal election.
Reed, a veteran campaign strategist and an architect of Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”, is a former Liberal party pollster with a long history as a researcher with Crosby Textor (now C|T), the strategy group loved by conservative pollies around the world, including Boris Johnson.
Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox
But his ability to win two huge contracts from Morrison’s office since February with a limited tender has led many to question his intimate role in crafting the government’s COVID-19 response.
Reed’s good fortune began in April when he was awarded a $541,750 limited-tender contract by Nev Power’s COVID-19 commission to conduct research “to inform whole-of-government communications on social and community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly during the period of social restrictions”.
This research was sent directly to the prime minister’s office, it emerged in estimates last week, prompting Labor to label it “thinly disguised political research” paid for by Australian taxpayers, rather than by the Liberal party, as would be the convention.
Reed’s luck doubled in May when he won another limited tender contract worth $554,675 from Treasury. This contract, it emerged on Monday, related to a $15 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign about economic recovery called “Our Comeback” that has appeared on billboards and in newspapers across the country. This research was also handed directly to the prime minister and the treasurer’s political offices.
It’s not unusual for governments on both sides of politics to run ads and conduct market research to test out certain policies, particularly ahead of elections (Kevin Rudd was particularly good at it). But it’s the size of Reed’s contracts — purely for market research, not the ad campaign itself — that has surprised experts.
“This is not some basic report being done about how people feel,” Australian National University marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes told Crikey. “Someone is doing some in-depth work here and it’s very targeted.”
So is Reed just running a secret polling outfit for the Liberal party, at taxpayers’ expense?
The research reports, which would reveal what questions are being asked in focus groups, would give some indication of that, but the government has refused to hand them over, including to the select committee that is monitoring the government’s response to the pandemic.
Officials from Treasury told estimates this week that Resolve Strategic ran 16 virtual focus groups and online surveys of 7000 randomly selected participants, and that it conducted 30 “in-depth” interviews with businesses about the efficacy of the government’s measures.
But Hughes said that the money still didn’t add up.
“A million dollars is a lot to spend on market research,” he said.
“A single focus group costs around $800 to $1000 … this is definitely up there in terms of market research contracts you would see in Australia all year. Particularly with the pandemic, that’s a large sum of cash.”
Reed, who did not return Crikey’s calls, is not the only C|T alumnus to have a prominent role in the government’s messaging. Morrison’s principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein is the former chief executive of C|T, where he worked with Reed for several years. This has prompted Labor Senator Murray Watt to accuse the government of handing big contracts to mates.
Under government guidelines, commonwealth ads must be “objective” and “not directed at promoting party political interests”. A Treasury spokesperson said the “Our Comeback” campaign had followed the guidelines and approval processes.
Is this another case of the Coalition government helping itself? Let us know your thoughts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.