government advertising
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The PM’s spin doctors have been hard at work this year, generating catchy slogans and cleverly crafted Instagram posts at every turn.

But as Crikey wrote in October, Scott Morrison’s marketing obsession goes far beyond the realm of public relations — it has seeped into his policymaking too. And with millions being spent on focus groups to refine the Treasury department’s economic recovery message, it seems nothing is beyond the reach of spinners.

Now questions are being raised about the independence of a committee tasked with policing government advertising.

The little known Independent Communications Committee (ICC) is supposed to act as a handbrake on governments using taxpayer dollars to pay for party political material.

As its name suggests, its role is to independently scrutinise public sector ads to ensure they meet commonwealth guidelines.

But its approval of the government’s $15 million “Our comeback” campaign, which was informed by research conducted by long-term Liberal Party pollster Jim Reed, has put the independence of the body into question.

The ICC is chaired by Andrew Blyth, who was appointed to the role by the government in July despite his close association with the Liberal Party.

Blyth is a Liberal Party veteran who worked as a senior ministerial adviser in the Howard government. He now manages the John Howard Library at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Canberra.

Blyth’s potential conflict of interest has caught the attention of journalist and Twitter agitator Jommy Tee, who raised the question about whether his affiliation with the party undermined his independence.

Crikey asked Blyth whether his association with the Liberal Party undermined his ability to independently scrutinise the Morrison government’s ad spending, but he declined to comment. He said in a statement that he had never worked for the Liberal party and that any conflict of interest was managed in line with the ICC’s terms of reference

One of the ICC’s biggest determinations since Blyth’s appointment has been approving the government’s “Our comeback” economic recovery campaign in October.

As Treasury officials told Senate estimates, the campaign was informed by market research conducted by Jim Reed’s company, Resolve Strategic. Reed, a former researcher for Crosby Textor, won the $500,000 contract under a limited tender.

Despite the use of the government’s “comeback” slogan, Blyth said in a letter to Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy that the committee was satisfied the campaign met the government’s advertising guidelines.

This was because, it said, the committee had been “reassured” by the department that the language in the campaign’s creative material would remain “clearly distinguishable from party political material”.

Crikey asked Blyth whether the committee had actually viewed the creative material used in the campaign, but he declined to comment.

Morrison has used his marketing expertise to refine the government’s messaging to great success. He’s won a miracle election and his popularity has surged despite countless political scandals, deadly bushfires and a global pandemic.

But experts say his obsession with polling, market research and advertising has heralded a new era of spin that mimics the American model where government messaging is largely outsourced to external lobby firms that can operate under “commercial in confidence”. 

This has prompted a warning from Labor that “thinly disguised political research” is being funded by Australian taxpayers rather than by the Liberal Party, as is the convention.

With the government likely to amp up its spending on advertising ahead of the next federal election, surely the role of the ICC has never been so important.

NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement received from Andrew Blyth after deadline.