Senate debates

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Auditor-General’S Reports

Audit Report No. 2 of 2009-01

6:12 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Communications campaigns are an important part of the interaction between government and citizens. Maybe if our government and this Commonwealth were not quite as large and intrusive, this would not be quite as important, but that is a much larger subject that I do not plan to address this evening.

When used appropriately, such campaigns serve an important purpose: they communicate rights, opportunities and obligations to all Australians. Under the previous, coalition government, Mr Rudd and the Labor Party continually made opportunistic attacks on government information campaigns, but for the first time the Australian National Audit Office has examined what Labor have done and their behaviour. They have found that Labor have come up wanting, which is no surprise to many of us who are familiar with their behaviour at the state level. Let’s put aside for the moment the grave concerns that the Auditor-General expressed early last year about having to be involved in the approval process of advertising campaigns. Let’s also put aside the fact that such involvement could severely compromise the independence of the Audit Office.

According to the latest Audit Office report, the Rudd Labor government’s new advertising regime contains a number of serious faults. Again—no surprise to all of us—Labor is failing to live up to its pre-election promises and commitments. Despite spending $87 million on a media buy in 2008, the ANAO points out that there are still government agencies whose processes are not meeting the requirements of the advertising guidelines. Moreover, the ANAO considers that Labor’s guidelines themselves need an overhaul. There are a number of serious deficiencies that require correction.

The Audit Office says that the Rudd Labor government must make greater use of research to inform the communication of strategy. Put simply, firstly, the Rudd Labor government is launching advertising campaigns that have no clear rationale and, by implication, are political feel-good campaigns. Secondly, the Audit Office says that the Rudd Labor government must provide greater clarity on the requirements of the cost-benefit analysis used in these advertising campaigns. In other words, Labor is spending too much money on the wrong sorts of campaigns and advertising.

The Audit Office says that the Rudd Labor government must also provide greater clarity around the boundary between business-as-usual communication activities and those activities which are subject to the guidelines. It says that the government must also provide greater clarity on which advertising activities fall within the campaign advertising definition. Taken together, these recommendations clearly relate to the rort that was exposed when my colleague Senator Ronaldson questioned the ANAO about Labor’s stimulus package website. As the Senate will recall, the website cost millions but was never cleared by the ANAO because it was outside these guidelines. Eventually, officials in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet temporarily closed down the website when it was pointed out that it contained party-political material. We have again seen this week the Rudd government’s signs in schools scandal. This is another example of slipping political advertising through a loophole.

Finally, the ANAO also recommended that agencies present campaign documentation on their own websites. This final failing is worthy of greater comments, because it goes to the lengths to which the Rudd Labor government has divorced itself from the principles it announced before the last election. At Senate estimates, officials were asked about which firms were winning advertising tenders. Previously, all such information had been available through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Labor, however, refused to answer this question, stating that the process had now been devolved to individual agencies. In response, my colleague Senator Ronaldson put a question on notice to each individual agency.

Bizarrely, and this shows just how arrogant the Rudd Labor government has become, the Special Minister for State wrote back purporting to answer on a whole-of-government basis, outlining that the information was available in their annual advertising report. But this is simply not true. The Rudd Labor government’s new advertising report is a waster of paper, delivering less real information about government advertising than was disclosed under the previous government. The report, in its 32 pages, has just one page of useful information: the cost of the overall media buy. The rest of the report is filler that is available on relevant departmental websites.

What is much more important is what is missing from this report. Who were the applicant agencies? Who were the successful agencies? How much were they paid? What amount was spent respectively on advertising, research and public relations? Which campaigns had to be changed during their development because they were outside the advertising guidelines? None of this is in the report. Yet all of this information was available under the previous government and was brought to the public’s attention three or four times every year during the Senate estimates process. Now that Labor has abolished the central agency for government advertising, this vital information has been hidden in the bureaucracies of individual departments. But this is again no surprise. Using the veil of independence and transparency of an outside agency, this report does not conceal what truly lies beneath: more complexity and less information about government advertising programs.

Overall, the ANAO report is a damning indictment of how the Rudd Labor government has been abusing the system over the past year and since it took office. Even the ANAO now admits that the Rudd Labor government has put spin over substance in its advertising campaigns and it is time for the Rudd government to act to fix these problems and fix them now.

Question agreed to.


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