Matters of Public Importance: Government Advertising

Federal Labor has reached a new low. Having promised so much and delivered so little, its backflip to run an unconscionable taxpayer-funded misinformation campaign is another example in the long list of broken Labor promises. To add insult to injury and like with so much else they do, Labor has not only embarked on a $38 million taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign but also rushed it and not consulted. Remember throughout all this that Mr Rudd gave this solemn commitment: government advertising was a cancer on the body politic of Australia that needed surgical removal.

So rushed was its desire for a taxpayer-funded campaign, Labor—through its Special Minister of State—crashed through and ignored its very own pathetically weak guidelines by invoking emergency powers. That is bad enough in itself. But—oh, what a tangled web we weave—having disingenuously claimed urgency and emergency, Labor then withheld this decision wilfully and deliberately from the parliament in an attempt to avoid the scrutiny of Senate estimates process.

Under Labor’s own weak rules, any decision by the Special Minister of State to bypass due process for advertising campaigns needs to be explained by a tabling statement to the parliament. Mr Swan asked for the exemption on 10 May. By 14 May the Special Minister of State had prepared for him a draft letter and a tabling statement. Yet the tabling statement was not tabled until 28 May, the very day after Senate estimates for the Special Minister of State had finished. It was just a coincidence, just serendipitous, according to Labor. In fact, the Treasurer was told a full four days earlier in an extensive two-page letter. Why not just table the letter to the Treasurer as the Special Minister of State’s reasons? It would have been pretty simple.

According to Senator Ludwig at the reconvened Senate estimates hearing forced upon him by the Senate, the letter was not tabled because he was ‘preparing the tabling statement’. When asked later whether he had been provided with a draft tabling statement, the minister said, ‘No, my office and I prepared the tabling statement.’ The minister was asked again, ‘There was no draft from the department?’ The department then intervened and exposed the attempted cover-up by confirming that there was a draft. So the minister did not prepare the statement—he may have finalised it but he did not draft it from scratch. Even more devastating for the hapless minister was when he said to the committee:

… I wanted to not just simply rubber-stamp the department’s draft statement but read it, reflect on it and then decide on what I should say in it. After all, it is my signature at the bottom of the page.

Let us examine this excuse and thereby expose it. Firstly, we were told the minister could not prepare the tabling statement because ‘it was estimates’, but that was before we found out he got the draft on 14 May. Estimates started on 24 May, so the minister had a full 10 days before estimates to consider his tabling statement. Secondly, when listening to the minister you would have thought his tabling statement was a like a High Court decision where the judge says how he has decided the case and will publish reasons later. The only problem was that his tabling statement was even shorter and contained even less information than his letter to the Treasurer. Thirdly, the copy of the tabling statement does not even bear the signature of the minister, which he said he had signed. So on top of his brief is this minister—oh, what a tangled web we weave.

The minister has got himself into a terrible mess. We are to believe that it took all of the minister’s mental acuity and unbridled intellect over 10 days to condense his own letter to the Treasurer into the statement to the parliament from 459 words and nine paragraphs into 180 words and seven paragraphs. Step aside, members of Mensa, and let Senator Ludwig through so we can give full acknowledgement to this unparalleled intellectual giant. This nation should be oh so thankful that we have such a gifted minister who can distil nine paragraphs into seven paragraphs in only 10 days. What wonderful intellectual prowess!

Just look at paragraph 2 of both the letter and the statement to get the full import of this expenditure of intellectual gravitas. First of all, in paragraph 2 of the letter the minister said:

In my capacity as Cabinet Secretary responsible for the guidelines, I can exempt advertising campaigns on the basis of national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reasons.

In just 10 days, and after harnessing all his intellectual fortitude, the minister was able to distil that paragraph into this:

As Cabinet Secretary, the campaign framework provides that I may exempt a campaign from compliance with the guidelines on the basis of a national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reason.

Can you imagine the mental anguish the minister went through to reflect and decide on how to make those wonderful changes? This is just sheer brilliance personified in none other than the Special Minister of State himself. This minister has a choice: he has either an intellectual deficit or an integrity deficit. I suspect no-one believes the minister’s explanation on pages 17 and 18 of the Hansard:

As I said in answer to your question, having written a letter to the Treasurer on 24 May and provided the reasons therein, I wanted to not just simply rubber-stamp the department’s draft statement but read it, reflect on it and then decide on what I should say in it. After all, it is my signature at the bottom of the page.

The tabled statement is shorter and provides even less explanation than the letter to the Treasurer. If it genuinely is the case that the minister needed 10 days from the draft, or even four days from the letter to the draft, he should not be the minister.

The reason for the delay in tabling was very simply a cynical attempt to avoid the scrutiny of this parliament. If you analyse this excuse that the minister needed to read, reflect and decide on what he should say, and then compare the letter to the Treasurer and his tabling statement, you will see that the statement is word for word but just a condensation of it. No extra reasons, no extra rationale, and no extra thought power went into this, and that is why the minister’s explanation falls so very, very hollow. And it provides the explanation to this parliament and to the Australian people why the tabling of this statement was deliberately withheld until the Senate estimates for the Special Minister of State were over. There was no reason that the minister needed four days—or, indeed 10 days—to redraft this statement. A junior in his office could have undertaken the task.

As I said before, this minister either has a huge intellectual deficit, if he claims that it did take him 10 days and a lot of thought and intellectual grunt to come to this statement, or there is a deficit in his explanation to this parliament; I fear the latter. The Labor Party, the Prime Minister and this Special Minister of State stand condemned.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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