Treasury ad raises concerns over political advertising


Source: Unsplash

An advertising campaign run by the Treasury and sponsored by the Australian Taxation Office has raised questions about how far government advertising can push the boundaries of an apolitical public service.

As reported by Crikey, the Facebook ad claimed that “the government has cut taxes for working Australians”, and linked to the bettertax.gov website.

Facebook users expressed their concern over the political nature of the ad.

“Why is it a better tax system?” one user wrote. “Is this a paid for political advertisement?”

“Since when does the ATO do the government’s advertising?” another user asked.

The campaign has also aired on television and radio, to demonstrate “how the Australian government is building a better tax system for hard-working Australians”, according to the better tax website.

Crikey questioned the Treasury on whether it was appropriate for the department “to judge whether a new tax system is better or worse than it previously was” and how the campaign fits into government advertising guidelines.

Treasury’s response confirmed the campaign had received the tick of approval from the Independent Communications Committee on government advertising. They also linked a letter from committee chair Greg Williams to former Treasury boss Philip Gaetjens as proof.

According to the guidelines, campaigns should be:

  • relevant to government responsibilities,
  • presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign,
  • objective and not directed at promoting party political interests,
  • justified and undertaken in an efficient, effective and relevant manner.

Williams told Gaetjens:

“The Committee is satisfied that the campaign is relevant to government responsibilities (Principle 1), and that the campaign is being developed in line with Principles 2 to 4 of the Guidelines.

“The Committee’s view has been formed at the communication strategy stage, and it has not considered the advertising materials. For this reason, the Committee has concluded that the proposed Tax and Economy (phase 2) campaign is capable of complying with Principles 1 to 4 of the Guidelines.”

As for the ATO, a spokesperson said the department’s involvement with the campaign was “limited to the use of our social media channels to help Treasury reach their audience”.

This isn’t the first time a government ad has been accused of appearing political.

Last month, an audit of government advertising campaigns from the national Auditor-General found that a statement released during one particular campaign “contained overt political argument and could be interpreted as being directed at strengthening community support for the government of the day”. The audit office called for stronger advertising guidelines, but the majority of its recommendations received unusual push back from the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Department of Finance.

Like the Treasury’s assertion that the current government’s tax system was “better”, the Environment and Energy’s Powering Forward campaign was simply, in the words of Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor, “empowering Australians”.

Back in April, the Victorian Liberal party leader Michael O’Brien called on the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission to investigate four department heads over their authorisation of a campaign that he claimed had “intended to influence public sentiment against the current Government of the Commonwealth”. The watchdog declined, and passed it onto the state’s public sector commissioner Paul Grimes instead.

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