31 May 2010

It is not just the mining ads

Today the whole nation is riveted, as well it might be, on the Government’s outrageous intention to spend $38 million of taxpayers’ money selling its unsaleable Resources Super Profits Tax (RSPT). As a former Treasury colleague of mine would have said, you can feed a lot of widows and orphans for $38 million.  You could probably even buy a few demountable classrooms.

What is outrageous about the mining ads is that they almost certainly will not meet the only test of respectability that I would regard as acceptable – they will not contain what people in the intelligence world would call “actionable intelligence”.

Put into everyday English, what I am saying is that the only time the Government is justified in spending your money in advertising to you is when there is information you need in order to inform an action that you need to take – and I am not referring here to informing your voting intentions – or an action that you need to avoid taking.

For example, if a government decides to offer free flu shots to all people over 65, then it is perfectly proper to promote that fact in order that the relevant members of the population know about and can decide what to do. The advertisements should not contain any gratuitous pats on the back for itself, but advertising the core information is perfectly proper.

The Government argues that its ads are necessary to counter disinformation from the mining industry. Stripped of the hostile and emotive language, what the Government is really saying is that we have suddenly discovered what we should have known all along, that we should explain this difficult policy, and that is what the advertising campaign is for.

That doesn’t meet any worthwhile test of respectability. Explaining policy is the core business of Ministers.  The problem is that they cannot explain it because like the rest of us they find it very difficult to understand.  Respected Melbourne University economist John Freebairn, a consultant to the Henry Review, was quoted in the Weekend Australian Financial Review, 29-30 May 2010, as guessing that there would  be only about half a dozen experts in the whole of Australia who would intimately understand the workings of the super profits tax.

Since the time of Paul Keating there has been a cliché in Australian politics, “If you can’t understand it, don’t vote for it”. I would add another rule of thumb for our political masters: “If you can’t understand it, don’t inflict it on the rest of us”.

The forthcoming mining ads are not the only Government advertising that fails the test I have proposed. Last night on SBS Television I saw an Australian Government sponsored advertisement for “Health Reform”.  In the light of the current debate about the mining tax advertisements I watched it very carefully for actionable intelligence. It contained none. It told me that the Commonwealth is to become the dominant funder of our hospital system and that as a result everything will be so much more wonderful than before.  It contained no information upon which I could act – it was purely and simply an advertisement promoting the current Federal Government.

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