Monday, 22 July 2013

When does "government advertising"

become "election campaigning"?
Over the weekend, and again today, there are full page "advertisements" in Australian newspapers about the "new policy" concerning people who arrive by boat without a valid visa. These "advertisements" are supposedly aimed at people considering making the journey by sea without a valid visa and those who transport them.
Why then are they being put into Australian newspapers? Yes, it could be said that the Australian government is intending to inform people in Indonesia about the matter.
There are problems with this. First of all, they know anyway. Word gets around. I had a slew of e-mails over the weekend telling me that word had got around - but not through the Australian advertising campaign. People smugglers have their own networks - and they are efficient and effective. Second, almost nobody in Indonesia reads Australian newspapers. Many people in Australia do not read newspapers. A full page advertisement in our national newspaper, "The Australian", is not going to be seen by the people the policy targets.
This is election campaigning dressed up as "government information".
One of the advantages of incumbency is that there is the potential to spend money informing the public about what the government has done or plans to do. Nevertheless there is also a fine line between informing, advertising and campaigning.
I have no problem with informing people about what is going on. Indeed, I would encourage it. People need to know what is happening and how it affects them. That means that any necessary legislation needs to be in place, money needs to have been allocated and something needs to be ready to start (or will be underway) and involves things the community needs to know about.
Plain English and minimum money should be the order of the day.
There is even a place for some advertising. This may be about something a government is seeking public input on - perhaps for a Senate Committee or a Productivity Commission inquiry. It may be about something that has come up as a result of these things and action governments plan to take as a result. That is legitimate information and people need to be informed.
But, party policy changes made in response to public opinion in the lead up to an election campaign and announced as government policy when money has not been allocated by parliament, no legislation is in place and there is nothing more than an informal agreement between those involved are not something which people should be informed about via the public purse. This is campaigning pure and simple.
All governments do it. I would rather they spent the money on fixing the problem.

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