Coalition spent $11m on pre-election ad blitz, despite warnings campaign was a dud



26 August 2019 07:37

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The government spent $11m of taxpayers’ money on an ad blitz spruiking its energy policies in the two months before the federal election, despite repeated warnings the campaign was proving ineffective.

An audit of the government’s $210m-a-year advertising spend was released on Monday, finding shortcomings in the running of a campaign run by the environment department, known as Powering Forward.

The campaign ran across newspapers, digital news sites, social media, television and radio, and boasted of the government’s efforts to bring down power prices.

The $27.2m campaign was funded by taxpayers but used language strikingly similar to the Coalition’s political messaging. The last of its five phases ran in March and April, just before the federal election in May.

Government advertising campaigns are not to be “conducted for party political purposes”.

The Australian National Audit Office found the Powering Forward campaign was relevant to Australian government responsibilities.

But the audit found the department failed to properly document its efforts to verify the claims made in the statement.

“The department’s verification of campaign statements, which presented information as fact, was not documented before the campaign first launched or before the launch of subsequent phases,” the auditor-general found.

The audit also found the campaign was continued in its last two phases despite clear warnings it was proving ineffective. That means taxpayers were slugged $15m for a campaign that the government was warned was ineffective.

“The overall evaluation for the campaign’s first three phases reported that its impact was limited,” the audit found. “Environment nonetheless conducted a fourth phase at a cost of $4 million (including GST).”

“After receiving an evaluation that Phase 4 of the campaign struggled to engage the audience, Environment conducted a fifth phase at a cost of $11 million (including GST) without documenting whether this represented a proper use of public resources.”

Separate documents obtained by Guardian Australia this year showed the government had ignored warnings from UM, its contracted ad buyer, not to run the campaign in the lead-up to Christmas.

The audit also questioned why the department chose to pay for 3,400 brochures for Powering Forward. The brochures were not originally planned for, but were prepared “at the department’s discretion and at public expense without authorising statements” and provided to the minister’s office.

Guardian Australia approached the environment department for comment.

In its response to the auditor, the department argued the campaign had been successful with high reach.

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

“The department considers that the ANAO’s analysis and overall conclusion contained in the proposed report do not appropriately consider the evolving nature of the campaign.”

Crossbench MPs, Labor, and the Greens had all requested audits of government advertising.

In making Labor’s referral, Pat Conroy, the then shadow assistant energy minister, said the campaign’s slogans were similar to those used by senior members of the Coalition.

“I ask that you consider whether the use of the slogan ‘We’ve turned the corner on electricity prices’ constitutes a breach of principle 3 of the guidelines, given the slogan is attributable to members of the government, including former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who repeatedly used this phrase during his prime ministership,” Conroy wrote.

“Close variants of this slogan have been used by the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, the current treasurer and former energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and the current energy minister, Angus Taylor.

“These comments are neither ‘objective’ nor free of ‘party political’ themes, and have been at the centre of the Liberal party’s political strategy.”


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