Friday, March 13, 2009

Responsible Government, Howard Style

In today's Crikey, Bernard Keane wrote a fantastic article on the recently released report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on government advertising under John Howard.

For those of you like me who hated seeing money being spent furthering Howard's political agenda it was confirmation of long held views. And should you have any friends or relatives who like to say John Howard was the best Prime Minister this country had, feel free to shove the report under their nose.

Keane before writing for Crikey worked in the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts so he knows a bit about what needs to be done before public money can be spent - safe to say there are delegations, instructions and legislation up the wazoo guiding every dollar. The primary rule is open tenders for any spend over $80,000 and the guiding principle must always be "value for money".

John Howard wasn't so big on that concept.

Here's an interesting snippet from the report to get us started:
  • The annual cost of advertising rose in real terms from $116million (2007–08 prices) in 1995–96 to $289million in 2007–08, an increase of 150percent. Advertising for the 2007 calendar year totalled $368million. This growth saw government advertising outlays overtake those of major commercial interests such as the ColesGroup and Telstra. In 2007, the Commonwealth was Australia’s largest advertiser.

Gee what happened in 2007 that required so much advertising... hmmm let me think.

But the real damnation in the report was regarding a committee called the "Ministerial Committee on Government Communications":

  • Prior to the November 2007 Federal Election, the Government’s information activities were coordinated by the Special Minister of State (SMOS). The Minister chaired the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications (MCGC), which took key decisions relating to major and sensitive information campaigns (including advertising campaigns) ndertaken by Australian Government departments and agencies.

Ok now, the MCGC was a committee of the Special Minister of State (Gary Nairn - former Member for Eden-Monaro) and a bunch of Liberal and National back benchers run out of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet but in reality overseen by members of Howard's staff. It had no official authority to spend money on advertising, and yet in reality it approved or commissioned every advertising campaign put forward by any Department. As the report states:

  • At a minimum, the MCGC provided formal approvals and clearances at key points of campaign development and delivery. At times, the MCGC took decisions that completely reshaped campaign strategy and timing, extensively edited creative materials, and set requirements for the frequency of advertising.
Now when a pretty careful body like the ANAO says "at a minimum" you can imagine that the reality went a bit further.

The MCGC should have been receiving advice from Departments on the advertising expenditure and it should have (according to the Australian Government Solicitor - AGS) “considered and determined that the expenditure which would result from the decision it made would be in accordance with government policy and would make efficient and effective use of public money”.

In effect, the MCGC should have been at the very least making a decision on advertising on the basis of "value for money" and ensuring that the appropriate legal authority was obtained (ie the responsible Minister or Departmental officials). Not a real onerous ask one would think. How do you think they did?

"the evidence available to the ANAO suggests that the MCGC, in considering the campaigns within the scope of this audit, did not generally have regard to the full range of matters required to enable it to carry out the obligations and statutory requirements associated with approving the spending of public money. The AGS has advised the ANAO that, in such instances, it is unclear as to who the actual approver of expenditure for the purposes of FMA Regulation 9 was".

Regulation 9 is public servant speak for the regulation in the Financial Management and Accountability Act that actually gives authority for spending public money. It is absolute Gold in the public service. You ALWAYS make sure you are in compliance with it.

So in other words, not only did the MCGC not get advice from the responsible Department on how the advertising should be done, how the money should be spent, who should run the campaign, or even if there should be a campaign at all, but even worse the ANAO struggles at times to find out who was the person who authorised the spending of this money!

And remember in 2007 we're talking $368million!

What campaigns did the ANAO focus on? Well do you remember "Be Alert not Alarmed"? How about all those umbrella adverts about private health insurance? And the other one... hmmm do you recall any adverts about a little thing called WorkChoices?

Let's have a look at the tender process for the WorkChoices campaign. It was a big one - open tender process? Nope why bother! Ok, how about an assessment of the merits of the marketing consultant's tender? Well, in the ANAO's words:

Only one of the five select tender processes (the selection of Colmar Brunton as research consultant by DEEWR) was supported by a documented assessment of the merits of the competing proposals.

That is, for four of the contracts signed to do the work on WorkChoices, the MCGC didn't even bother writing down whether they Government would be getting value for money - I guess it's hard to make a note of such things, when you haven't even considered them...

Even better, in the case of 4 of the contracts, the consultants began work before official approval had been given by the responsible Department. That is, the MCGC would make the decision, and the responsible Department would be left holding the ball and having to somehow get approval etc and all the while trying to adhere to legal requiremnts.

So who got these contracts? Well for WorkChoices the public relation consultant was Dewy & Horton. Who are they? Well as Keane writes:

Dewey & Horton is headed by Ted Horton, a long-time Liberal Party advertising guru, part of what the Liberal called "the Team" that led the party’s election campaigns. The value of this contract was nearly $5.9m.

Yep - the whole thinks stinks to high heaven. It is as close to corruption as you can get, and pretty much does a Bob Beaman jump over the line at which you can start calling something a rort.

The whole things was as transparent as mud and flew in the face of everything that a democratic government should adhere to in the spending of public money.

The best thing about it all? After Labor won the 2007 election it disbanded the MCGC and put all decisions to do with Government advertising back into the Department of Finance, and out of the reach of the PM's private office.

The Howard Government careful with your money? Don't make me vomit.

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