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Government Advertising

26 October 2021

Hon Robert Simms:

Mr Chairman, before commenting on the detail of the amendment that is before you, I will respond to the tabling of the letter from the Auditor-General by the Treasurer. I welcome that information. It would have been helpful to have had that provided to us a little bit earlier than it being tabled in parliament. I do want to point out, Chair, that when we were last here together, and I moved to insert this amendment and we were going to progress this to a vote, the Treasurer spoke quite passionately about how unfair it was for the matter to be sprung on him and he talked about the lack of engagement with the government around my amendment.

I was persuaded by that, as I think the crossbenchers were, and more time was provided to the government. We adjourned the debate and now we have come back two weeks later. It is disappointing to see a letter relating to the amendment being tabled in this fashion without giving anybody the opportunity to take that into consideration as part of the debate.

I will point out, though, that there is an opportunity for amendments to be made should this pass this chamber, for further amendments and finessing to occur between the houses. If there is a significant issue that needs to be addressed, there will be an opportunity to do that.

This is a fairly straightforward amendment. It is what I consider to be a very important transparency measure and really what it does is ensure that the Auditor-General is required to provide approval for advertising in certain circumstances. It adds a really important transparency measure, I think, in terms of ensuring that the Auditor-General is required to approve certain government advertising, and that is advertising in particular circumstances and during the election period.

The government may be concerned that this is going to impact on advertising that they consider to be essential. The amendment makes it very clear that government advertising will be taken to be necessary for the proper functions of government if the Auditor-General is satisfied that the primary purpose of the government advertising is to communicate information relating to the following, and these things are stipulated.

I will not read them all, but they relate to public health and public safety, road and public transport, emergencies, legal or statutory matters, electoral material published under the authority of the Electoral Commissioner, and a range of other things. If anything has been missed that is considered essential, I am sure that that can be added in as part of the engagement between the two houses.

It is important to understand why this is so vitally important, and I think the Treasurer has talked a lot about his concerns around the spending of taxpayers' money in terms of setting up an independent budget office. He must then be aghast at the eye-watering advertising bill of his Liberal government, because it has been really quite outrageous.

It is worth remembering that, back in 2019, the Government Communications Advisory Committee was formed in July and it scaled back its public reporting on communication campaigns cost and effectiveness by the year 2020. As of June 2020, that body had published just one evaluation report for the financial year and in the previous financial year the government had reported monthly on campaigns on their costs and their effectiveness.

On 1 September 2020, this group changed its official guidelines and in addition to the rules requiring public reporting of the total cost and evaluation summary for each approved communications initiative, which was usually done after completion, the GCAC would now publish the cost of each campaign as it begins. Well, that was what was meant to happen, but the new guidelines did not specify a time frame for the reporting campaigns and therefore there was a significant lag in reporting.

Indeed, InDaily reported on this last year and it was noted that, despite numerous reporting campaigns being approved in September, there had been no reporting on the Department of the Premier and Cabinet website as required by the new guidelines. That is very disappointing.

The GCAC report for September 2020, made available at the end of October 2020, contains some information which I think is relevant to highlight here. There were at least six campaigns approved, worth a total of more than $8.8 million. The bulk of spending, more than $5 million, was for interstate and intrastate tourism campaigns, and $1.5 million was approved on 1 September for a campaign to attract New Zealand tourists.

Controversially, the government launched a $1.195 million taxpayer-funded campaign called Building What Matters, which was across various media platforms, promoting an infrastructure program in the wake of last year's state budget. That was scheduled to run until June 2021. This campaign does not explicitly include politicians, but in interviews and media politicians have referenced the campaign, a campaign that is paid for by the South Australian taxpayer.

The campaign promotes the government's infrastructure spend rather than giving direct information about individual projects. There have even been reports of cold marketing campaigns. This was reported by the ABC back on 26 March, indeed my birthday. I can tell you, it would not have been a welcome birthday present for me to receive one of these calls. According to this media report, members of the South Australian community were receiving phone calls promoting this Building What Matters campaign, a campaign funded by the South Australian taxpayer. The ABC has included an example of one of the voicemails which was left, and I will read it to you:

Good evening…I'm calling on behalf of the Premier, Steven Marshall—

it is like Amway—

and the state Liberal team to get your thoughts about the $16.7 billion infrastructure spend which will deliver safer roads, ensure that you have access to better healthcare closer to home and will deliver world-class schools for our kids.

That sounds like an ad to me. Despite the caller saying they were representing the Premier—and I am reading from the ABC here—the Premier denied any knowledge of the calls when asked by the ABC. He said:

I'm not aware of that…there's nothing wrong with going out and promoting the great work of [our] government.

That [could] be something you could take up with the Liberal Party.

It is unclear whether the call was made by a third party, who was paying for it or how the information was obtained. When asked whether or not the Liberal Party was paying for it or the taxpayer, Mr Marshall said, 'It's hard to comment because I haven't heard or seen the campaign that you're referring to.'

Quite frankly, that is simply not good enough. It is not good enough for the hard-earned money of South Australians to be wasted on PR for this state government. I can understand why they would want to be undertaking PR given the scandalous period they have faced, but it is not an appropriate use of taxpayer money and it is appropriate that this money is administered in an independent way and that there is some form of independent arbiter who can make a call on what is appropriate and what is not.

I am not suggesting the Governor-General take carriage of that—that is a step too far—but the Auditor-General is an appropriate body to take carriage of that. As I say, I note the concerns that they have expressed and that is something that can be worked through within the houses. I think this is a really important transparency measure. It is one that South Australians will welcome heading into this election and I commend it.