Energy minister rejects audit findings and 'will not apologise' for publicly funded ads

By Shannon Jenkins

August 27, 2019

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Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor has told Auditor-General Grant Hehir that he’s not sorry for “empowering Australians” through taxpayer-funded advertising.

The Australian National Audit Office has made 10 detailed recommendations to several departments in a new report following an audit of government advertising campaigns, but the government has pushed back.

The lengthy report received an extraordinary level of resistance via the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Department of Finance, with only three recommendations accepted in full. The remaining seven were either rejected, partially accepted or simply noted.

The Department of Health agreed to one recommendation — that it set “clear and measurable” performance targets for such campaigns and report against them — while the Department of Education agreed to make sure it reports against the performance targets it has already set.

According to the audit office, the current guidelines are too weak and it calls for stronger rules that emphasise they are not optional. Taxpayer-funded campaigns “must” not only be relevant, justified, efficient and effective, but also objective, fair and definitely not designed to promote party-political interests.

ANAO assessed several government campaigns, including the Department of the Environment and Energy’s Powering Forward campaign, which aimed to help Australians lower their energy bills, according to Taylor. A statement released during that particular campaign “contained overt political argument and could be interpreted as being directed at strengthening community support for the government of the day”, ANAO found.

One surprising recommendation is that ministerial media releases related to campaigns should be subject to the same approval and certification processes as campaign advertising materials. The Department of Finance did not agree to that particular suggestion and Taylor took it to heart.

“It is the longstanding practice of successive governments to tell Australians, in plain language, what the government is doing to improve their lives. The suggestion that any ministerial media release should be subject to the equivalent bureaucratic approval applying to campaign materials is both impractical and, in my view, highly inappropriate,” he wrote.

“The ‘make the call’ Powering Forward campaign has helped record numbers of Australians take matters into their own hands and move onto a cheaper electricity deal in the past year.

“I will not apologise for empowering Australians to bring their costs of living down.” 

There was also some friction between Taylor’s department and the audit office, which took the rare step of contradicting the positive spin DEE tried to put on its findings in a summary response to the audit. The department’s interpretation was the ANAO found it had “met the standard expected in the government advertising guidelines” but that is not the case.

Environment’s response to the report was not as passionate as Taylor’s, but the department seemed just as convinced that their $30.3 million campaign was a success.

“The department’s view, based on independent evaluation, is that the campaign was very successful and met all of its key objectives,” says the upbeat summary response submitted to ANAO.

“Specifically, the campaign built recognition strongly, delivered clear messaging around asking for a better electricity deal and encouraged people to take action.”

ANAO published the summary response as usual but added the following rebuttal:

“The ANAO has not concluded that the Powering Forward campaign ‘met the standard expected in the government advertising guidelines’. As discussed in paragraph 24 and Recommendation 7, the ANAO found shortcomings in Environment’s administration of the campaign.”

The audit report recommended DEE amend their process for signing off on campaigns by documenting how information is verified as accurate and making documented advice on the factual basis of campaign statements available to the chief executive before they certify it, but the department rejected that idea.

Environment and Energy agreed to review its procurement and commitment processes for campaign-related services, but rejected another recommendation that it assess whether continuing a “weak” campaign “represents proper use of taxpayer resources” and record its reasons for continuing such a campaign.

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