Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4.24 p.m.)-I seek leave to incorporate my speech.
The speech read as follows-
I wish to first congratulate the committee staff on their tireless assistance and advice, namely Alastair Sands and Sarah Bachelard, and committee deputy chair Senator Watson.
When referred by the Senate on 23 June 2004 the terms of reference of the inquiry were worded to examine all government spending since 1996. In the current parliament, the Opposition-dominated committee subsequently restricted the terms of reference to only Commonwealth advertising, presumably to protect the Labor states from scrutiny. As a result, the majority report tabled today is partisan. A skewed set of terms leading to a skewed report.
As an aside, Commonwealth advertising between 1996 and 2003 amounted to approximately $929 million. State Government advertising campaigns over the same period cost taxpayers more than $2.15 billion. I note that the Bracks Government has just embarked upon a re-election advertising spree.
This inquiry did not receive the flood of public interest the Opposition predicted. Indeed only 13 organisations and individuals made submissions, and three of those were the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Special Minister of State and the Clerk of the Senate.
The Clerk made five written submissions and contributed oral testimony, which I will touch on shortly.
Senator Watson and I address the four main issues arising from the inquiry in the minority report.
Firstly, the government is justified in its government advertising expenditure. Ad spend can not be fully addressed in terms of quantum of expenditure. Governments have an obligation to inform citizens of their rights and responsibilities, of their entitlement to benefits or of changes to government policy that will impact upon their lives.
Immunisation, healthy eating or cancer screening awareness campaigns do not promote one side of politics or the other. Similarly defence force recruitment campaigns do not reflect partisan policy.
Government advertising can result in net savings. The ‘Keeping the System Fair’ education campaign announced in the 2004/2005 Budget and which commenced recently is estimated to save taxpayers $214.9 million over four years by improving compliance among welfare recipients.
As Senator Watson and I have emphasised in the minority report, government advertising can not be measured by the quantum of expenditure.
Our second point is that suggestions for independent review of all government advertising have some merit, but arguments against these proposals outweigh the benefits.
Independent review assumes that the basis of criticism of a campaign lies with the nature of the advertising, rather than the policy content of the advertising. The two are inseparable.
The Opposition’s outrage at the WorkChoices advertising campaign is matched only by its anger over the changes we are making to free up the antiquated industrial relations system.
The High Court bench ruled in the Government’s favour against the ACTU and the Opposition that the WorkChoices campaign was legitimate.
Justice Dyson Heydon noted on 29 July that the ACTU case was:
really a political dispute. Courts tend to be reluctant to interfere in political disputes.
Another problem with independent review is that to date no one no public servant, no MP, no witness to committee hearings was able to devise a clear, objective statement of what constitutes political or non-political advertising. The lines are blurry and open to interpretation, and invariably coloured by the political or professional persuasion of the interpreter.
A lesser problem is the cost of independent scrutiny prior to every government advertising commencing. Funding would be required for an oversight body and departments would carry increased compliance costs and additional staff.
Opposition Senators on the committee have not provided any evidence to suggest that any of the campaigns run since 1996 would not have proceeded had they been subject to independent review.
This proposal is fine in theory, but is unworkable, impractical and I do not believe there is sufficient cause to adopt it as policy.
The third point raised in some submissions to the inquiry is that government advertising campaigns are illegitimate without a legislative base. This was largely raised in response to the WorkChoices campaign, which commenced before the draft legislation was finalised.
Witnesses who advocated this change to advertising policy had not considered the majority of government campaigns AIDS awareness, health promotion, anti-domestic violence, anti-smoking, Australian citizenship, Defence Force recruitment none of which have a legislative basis.
The final and most disappointing aspect of the inquiry was the nature of evidence by the Clerk of the Senate.
The Clerk made several submissions to the inquiry, in the course of which he deviated from his role as an independent procedural adviser to the Senate, to present highly contentious policy advice. Odgers Australian Senate Practice, edited by the Clerk, nominates the functions of the Clerk:
The Clerk of the Senate is the principal adviser in relation to proceedings of the Senate to the President, the Deputy President and Chair of Committees, and senators generally… the departmental head of the Department of the Senate… [and] secretary and adviser to the Procedure Committee.
The Clerk is an administrator and technical adviser in relation to the procedures and prerogatives of the Senate. His role does not extend to advice on the relative merits of public policy.
The Clerk’s expertise and experience is vital to the stability and integrity of the legislative process. It is therefore a very serious matter when the Clerk raises allegations of government corruption which he can not substantiate. In particular, Government Senators were concerned about the following remarks made by the Clerk:
The other problem which has been perceived in government advertising is the cross-subsidising of party political advertising. It is suspected that advertising firms accept lower fees for advertisements paid for by the party in power with an assurance that more lucrative government advertising contracts will fall their way. In effect, the expenditure on the government advertising projects subsidises the party political advertising of the government party. This is tantamount to corruption.
In oral and written evidence to the Committee, the Clerk claimed that in referring to these perceptions and suspicions he was not himself supporting these allegations, but merely reflecting concerns that had been raised in the Senate chamber. The Clerk did not provide references in his written submissions to support the claim that he was merely repeating assertions made in the Senate. Nor was the material to hand:
Mr Evans – We could go through an exercise of assembling all the references in the literature to support that statement. I hope you do not ask me to do that, but I could.
Upon request the Clerk did submit Hansard references in support of his assertions. He referred the committee to 25 speeches made in the Senate. All were by Labor Senators: ten from Labor Senator Robert Ray, nine from Labor Senator John Faulkner, and the remaining six from other Labor Senators. Despite the partisan nature of the evidence, the Clerk denied this was an issue.
The Clerk who provided his own constitutional advice as to whether monies for the WorkChoices campaign were legally appropriated. The High Court has subsequently rejected, by a 5-2 majority, the Clerk’s interpretation.
Government Senators respect the role of the Clerk as a procedural adviser to the Senate and Senators. They do not believe there is a role for the Clerk as an adviser on either policy or public administration.
Government Senators consider that the intervention of the Clerk in relation to these matters was unwise, outside his remit and needlessly opened the Office of the Clerk to allegations of political partiality.
In tabling the minority report into this inquiry, I restate my disappointment with the outcome of the inquiry and once again thank the committee and secretariat staff for their co-operation and assistance.