Should government issue advertising be regulated?

Last week I gave a presentation to an electoral law workshop on the campaign finance law applying to ‘third parties’. My basic thesis was that the rules introduced in NSW and Queensland (discussed in my recent paper and this submission) are heavily biased against third parties, and in favour of political parties and the government of the day. In NSW and Queensland, third parties have much lower donations and expenditure caps than political parties. If the ALP submission to the current parliamentary review of campaign finance is a guide, the government will push for a similar regime federally.

Another area in which the law is biased against third parties is government advertising, such as the carbon tax ads launched at the weekend by the federal government. The federal rules have the following provisions:

Campaign materials must not try to foster a positive impression of a particular political party or promote party political interests.

Campaign materials must not:

*mention the party in Government by name;
* directly attack or scorn the views, policies or actions of others such as the policies and
opinions of opposition parties or groups;
* include party political slogans or images;
* be designed to influence public support for a political party, a candidate for election, a Minister or a Member of Parliament; or
* refer or link to the web sites of politicians or political parties.

Of course whether or not the ads can be genuinely non-partisan is a matter of dispute, but there is at least some self-discipline on using government advertising as a vehicle for inter-party competition (though these rules have no statutory basis). However except for the provision on directly attacking or scorning opposition groups, as opposed to parties, these guidelines give governments a free hand to run taxpayer-funded campaigns contrary to the interests or views of third parties.

The imbalances between government and third parties caused by government advertising were the one point on which my discussant last week (Marian Sawer) appeared to at least partly agree with my presentation. However my point wasn’t that I think these ad campaigns should be capped or prohibited. It was that if third party campaigns are capped or prohibited on some ‘political equality’ rationale this has implications for government advertising as well. The ALP submission to the parliamentary review does not mention this issue.

My preferred position is not that government advertising be capped (though of course spending on ads, as with any government expenditure, should be carefully scrutinised). There is a case for governments not being restricted to ‘free’ forms of communication, for being able to use a more diverse range of persuasive techniques and media to communicate with audiences who don’t read or watch the news. And given the many issues governments are involved with, it is hard to determine a figure that would be an appropriate cap.

But if the policy goal is to even up political contests, we can hardly leave government advertising out of the equation. Perhaps one solution is to define expenditure caps around issues, and restrict government spending on advertising to whatever a third party can spend.

4 Responses to “Should government issue advertising be regulated?

  • 1
    Debt Consolidation Nation
    July 19th, 2011 08:33

    Is the idea of all this to exclude advertising campaings like the mining tax or cigarette plain packaging?

  • 2
    Dave Bath
    July 19th, 2011 08:34

    I think any absolute caps on governments ads can be counterproductive, but it /is/ appropriate, above a threshold, to require some signoff beforehand on content and cost by the auditor-general (except for emergency situations where really TV stations should probably be happy enough to give the time for free).

    So, “slip slop slap” anti-skin cancer ads would get a tick almost straight away, but announcements of government initiatives are trickier – actionable content versus persuasion?

    Perhaps there’s a best-of-both worlds … a quick flash at start or end to indicate an ad has been approved in advance by the audit office, a flash for “the auditor wasn’t consulted”, a flash (which would take guts) for “we asked the auditor, who said no, on the basis of being propaganda/waste, but we decided to bombard you with it anyway”.

    That way, people would be able to judge how much to believe the ad and its value when the message is being pushed, rather than the much less effective auditor report a year later that no-one reads.

    It wouldn’t prevent governments from spending squillions on dodgy ads, but it would mean a government would cop it from the public if it did try to put out propaganda.

    The only effective gaming possible by the government would be appointment of a dodgy auditor-general.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    July 19th, 2011 18:03

    DCN – At least during campaign periods, though the actual law varies. In Qld the spending cap (but not the donations cap) is restricted to campaigns that advocate a vote for or against a party or candidate. But in NSW campaigns that may influence voting are covered.

    Dave – I think your scheme relies on people recognising distinctions that will seem very arcane to most people, in the unlikely event they recognise them at all. It’s all advertising, which I think we can be confident in assuming that most people know not to automatically accept as the truth.

  • 4
    Debt Consolidation Nation
    July 28th, 2011 08:09

    It just seems to smack of political parties trying to monopolies the political discussion.