Northern Territory auditor-general Julie Crisp (pictured) has rebuked both the Chief Minister’s department and his ministerial office over separate cases of politicised and misleading advertising paid for with public funds.
First, a set of ads aiming to showcase government achievements using the tag line “on track” breached the territory’s Public Information Act because those two words are associated with Country Liberal Party campaigning, according to Crisp’s latest report to the NT Legislative Assembly:
“Review of information publically available from the Country Liberals webpage website identified that, whilst not communicated as a slogan per se, the phrase “on track” has been consistently used by Country Liberals members in media releases and other publicly available and reported information. The phrase “on track” can also be linked to the Country Liberals 2012 election campaign.”
The auditor-general believes the ads breached a section of the act that outlaws taxpayer-funded information releases which “may be regarded as promoting political party interests (whether express or implied)” and she recommended the phrase be scrubbed from the campaign completely.
The Department of the Chief Minister’s response was largely unrepentant, but it agreed to redo focus group testing. Its CEO John Coleman said the campaign would only cease using the tag line “if there is any implied connection to political campaigning” revealed in the market research, telling the auditor-general:
“With regard to your preliminary finding that the campaign contravenes the Public Information Act, I respectfully disagree.”
Now, the campaign website is unavailable: “ontrack.nt.gov.au” diverts to “nt.gov.au“ while “ontrack.nt.gov.au/site-map” appears in search results but points to a Department of Housing, Local Government and Regional Services login page.
The department argued that “on track” is a common and “well-respected” turn of phrase in Australia and said the marketing campaign involved focus group testing before and midway through its run. Its response describes this as “a best practise approach to ensure government communications are evidence-based and an appropriate use of public money” and asserts:
“At no time in any of the four focus groups was it raised by any of the participants that the phrase reminded them of a particular political party or political slogan. Had any of the focus group participants indicated that the phrase “On Track” was familiar or reminded them of a political campaign, the campaign would not have proceeded using that phrase as it would have been counter-productive to the goals of the campaign.”
Crisp writes she is “satisfied” with the response from the department, but her report contains no such acknowledgement of a rather more terse response from the office of Chief Minister Adam Giles, which she pinged for spending public money on a misleading political attack ad.
The auditor-general concluded the ad, placed in the territory’s favourite tabloid newspaper twice in September last year, breached three sections of the act. She decided it promoted party political interests, contained factually incorrect and misleading information, and failed to clearly distinguish comments from what purported to be statements of fact.
The blatantly political ad falsely accused non-government Members of the Legislative Assembly of having “blocked” the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, which the government was trying to rush through parliament. According to the report:
“The ice drug laws were not blocked as communicated in the advertisement with the following two consecutive sentences “This week, the NT Government proposed legislation to give police more power to stop and search ICE traffickers on our major highways. This law was BLOCKED in Parliament” …
“The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill had not progressed to the point where it was being debated therefore it is my opinion that the advertisement includes statements that are misleading and factually inaccurate…”
Giles’ director of communications argued semantics with Crisp, claiming the word “blocked” did not mean the bill was rejected, and that listing the names and party affiliations of all MLAs under two columns — “voted in favour” and “blocked by” — did not promote party policy. The spin doctor also said the NT Parliamentary crest went on the ad instead of the Chief Minister’s logo by accident because of the “urgency” with which the ads were put together.
But Crisp was having none of that, throwing in a long list of synonyms for “blocked” for good measure.
Her two main options in this case — to recommend the withdrawal or alteration of the ads — were not applicable since the printed ads ran months ago. Instead, she suggested the ministerial office staff “may benefit from receiving training in relation to the requirements” of the legislation she believes they breached, and recommended:
” … that the Office of the Chief Minister implement appropriate quality assurance processes and take any action considered necessary in order to prevent further instances where factually inaccurate and misleading information is given using money or property of the Territory.”
Giles’ office simply said it “noted” her decision and recommendation, while the chief minister himself said he would apologise for including the party affiliations of the non-government MLAs, but not for the taxpayer-funded ad itself.