Although Latham's call to force governments to be accountable for politicised advertising is clearly motivated by an appeal for votes (Kim Beazley did the same with the failed Government Advertising Bill in the run-up to the 2001 election), it does have merit. There are clear spikes in the amount of tax payers' money spent by governments in the months preceding an election, which suggests improper use of public funds.
According to Dr Richard Grant of the Commonwealth Information and Resource Services, there have been many instances where the government of the day has spent up big before an election. The Keating government spent the bulk of its $3 million Medicare Hospital Entitlements budget in the month before the 1993 election and $9 million on advertising in the three months prior to the 1996 election, mostly on its Working Nation campaign. The Howard government spent $29.5 million in the three months preceding the 1998 election and splurged $78 million in the four months before the 2001 election on various campaigns including the GST awareness program. A prominent critic of government advertising largesse, Dr Sally Young, states that since the Howard government came to power, it has spent about $1.8 million a week on advertising. So far this year, the government advertising budget has reached $123 million, after $35 million more was allocated last week. There have been two inquiries into government use of advertising by the Australian National Audit Office, in 1995 and 1998, without any real progress being made. Latham has called for an independent body to monitor and enforce rules on government advertising, promising to make the Howard Government repay any advertising costs deemed party political, if Labor wins office. An independent body would reverse the moves to make control of advertising spend a partisan issue by John Howard in 1997 when he created the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications (MCGC) and in 1998 when he moved the Government Communications Unit into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. However, the difficulties facing such a body are significant. How would it decide what was party political and what was not? MCGC chair Eric Abetz has attacked Latham's policy by claiming it would be impossible to produce an ad that could not be misinterpreted as political in nature by someone - one of the tenets of Labor's proposal. But another tenet is to consider advertising in the context of political timing - to examine in other words, why so much is spent in the run-up to an election. Labor and the Coalition will spend upwards of $15 million each on their election campaigns in the next couple of months, money that is welcomed by advertising and media agencies, as well as media owners. But these figures pale into insignificance next to the amount spent on supposedly non-party political campaigns over the years. Of course, a large part of this consists of "non-campaign" advertising - public notices, job vacancies and tender notices. But agencies that have taken a slice of the government pie might have to tighten their belts if Latham has his way. Just as long as the voters can hear him over all those family budget ads.
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