The Federal Government is at it again. In 2005, it allocated $55 million to promote WorkChoices, months before the law was even tabled in Parliament. Now it is doing the same with its "fairness" test.
Although a bill will be weeks or months away, full-page ads have appeared nationally, proclaiming "A Stronger Safety Net for Working Australians". The Government refuses to disclose its advertising plans or costings, but we are undoubtedly witnessing the beginning of a blitz that will culminate with television and radio ads.
How is this justified? The changes took effect on Monday May 7 in the absence of any detail. With such "legislation by advertisement", employers are supposed to work out their rights and obligations on the basis of the vague notion of "fair compensation" mentioned in an ad. Many thousands of AWAs made before Parliament finalises any bill will be questionable.
Worse, the ads encourage us to seek advice from "the Workplace Authority", which will decide what is "fair". There is no such body. The law established the Employment Advocate, and only Parliament can rename it, let alone give it new powers.
The Government claims the ads are to explain the detail of the changes. Leaving aside the fact that there are no details until a bill is drafted and Parliament debates it, the style, content and timing of the ads give away their partisan intention. Their purpose is to attempt to neutralise an issue on which the Coalition is vulnerable. If the aim were purely informational, the Government would wait until the law was settled.
Curiously, the Prime Minister earlier admitted it would be unethical to run partisan ads in an election year. He did this while exhorting business groups both to run ads promoting WorkChoices over ALP policy and to fund the Liberal Party to do likewise. Despite this, the recent ads are clearly partisan in character. True, they do not expressly criticise the ALP or ACTU. However, ads can be partisan without resorting to direct attacks. Ads are tainted with such a character when they sell, rather than explain, controversial government policy.
The latest ads open with claims about recent economic gains. Not only has no study or modelling ever linked such gains to recent IR changes, the claims fail the Prime Minister's own test that ethical ads should be limited to explaining policy. Having little detail to explain, the ads are then peppered with that staple of commercial advertising - the spin-doctored slogan - to counter perceptions that WorkChoices is unbalanced.
"Fair" is becoming the new F-word. As Mr Rudd chants it relentlessly, so the Government is now using public money to piggyback on it, ad nauseam. The "fairness" test is ostensibly aimed at protecting various conditions, including public holidays, penalty and overtime rates. Yet the ads fail to mention the shrunken nature of this test. The test does not, as the Prime Minister once put it, guarantee workers will be "no worse off" because the benchmark is award conditions - conditions that are usually inferior to actual industry conditions.
Even against this minimal benchmark, the "fairness" test does not ensure workers will always be adequately compensated for losing them. The ads signal that such "fairness" may give way to the "economic circumstances of the business". Workers on existing AWAs are also denied the slender protection of the "fairness" test.
Partisan government advertising has a corrosive effect on democracy. It arms already entrenched governments - the Coalition federally and Labor at state level - with an incumbency benefit denied to other parties. To put things in perspective, the $55 million for the first WorkChoices campaign exceeded the income of the ALP in the last financial year by nearly $20 million and was nearly 30 times the receipts of the Greens. It dwarfs the public funding payments for elections.
The situation will be exacerbated if state Labor governments retaliate with counter-ads. They have not been shy in soft-soaping their citizens with ads reassuring them of how good state health, education and other services are. In such an orgy of government-by-PR, the misuse of public money not only spreads half-truths but drowns out competing, but unresourced, voices.
Partisan government advertising exposes the fact that current regulation of government advertising fails to meet democratic standards. Such regulation is governed by guidelines devised in 1995 by the Keating government, which itself milked the taxpayer for self-promotion. These guidelines have been vigorously criticised by the Auditor-General and parliamentary committees. Not only do they fail to safeguard against partisan advertising, but they are not subject to independent supervision.
The Senate's finance and public administration committee has recommended more robust guidelines that include a prohibition against party-political advertising and supervision by the Auditor-General. Democrat senator Andrew Murray has gone further in a bill proposing that only ad campaigns with bipartisan approval be allowed in the last six months of a parliament. In the interests of probity and political equality, it is high time to adopt these recommendations.