Vic opposition tries to put the public service on trial over government advertising

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday April 16, 2019

The Victorian opposition wants four department heads, including the head of the public service, investigated by the state corruption watchdog over their roles in authorising a publicly funded advertising campaign criticising the federal health and education budgets.

Victorian Liberal party leader Michael O’Brien argues the $1 million campaign, which runs the slogan “Our Fair Share” and claims the Commonwealth has “short-changed” Victorians by about half a billion dollars, is a party-political attack on the Morrison government in support of the federal Labor opposition.

When Premier Daniel Andrews launched the ads, he did not mention any political party and clearly stated they were aimed at the Commonwealth government in Canberra, “no matter who wins” after Australians go to the polls on May 18.

The campaign itself doesn’t appear especially unusual or explicitly political either and the referral of four senior public servants, including the heads of the two key central agencies, is more likely a function of the Coalition’s electoral struggles in the garden state rather than the particulars of the ads themselves.

Still, you never know. O’Brien claims the following secretaries have breached the state’s public service legislation by authorising it and has asked the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission to investigate them:

  • Chris Eccles (pictured), Department of Premier and Cabinet
  • David Martine, Department of Treasury and Finance
  • Kym Peake, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Jenny Atta, Department of Education

“These four departmental secretaries on behalf of the Andrews Labor Government are responsible for authorising the expenditure of Victorian taxpayers’ money on an advertising campaign designed or intended to influence public sentiment against the current Government of the Commonwealth,” O’Brien said.

“Under Section 97C (a) (v) of the Public Administration Act a public sector body that publishes or causes to be published a public sector communication must ensure that the public sector communication is not designed or intended to directly or indirectly influence public sentiment for or against the current Government of the Commonwealth.”

He suggested the four departments had been co-opted into acting as “a campaigning arm of the Labor Party” rather than parts of an apolitical, independent public service, and also wants the auditor-general to probe the expenditure.

The state opposition leader even tried to pre-empt a likely counter-argument: that the communications material was permitted under section four of the state’s public sector communications regulations.

This defines a range of purposes of government communications campaigns as being in the public interest and hence allowable, including “to advocate on behalf of Victoria to advance Victoria’s position or interests” — and that is exactly what the government says the ads are intended to do.

“However, no exemption is permitted where the information is presented in a way that is deliberately inaccurate; or is deliberately misleading; or if the public sector communication does not present information as fact if that information is not reasonably able to be substantiated as fact,” O’Brien argued.

The government has largely played a straight bat; Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said she would “let other agencies deal with these matters as they see fit” in a brief response.

The Victorian government has also pushed back the date of its 2019-20 budget by almost a month due to the federal election.

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