3 July 2004

Big spender: Howard's $29m ad bill

With the Prime Minister, John Howard, still playing bluff on calling an election as early as tomorrow, new figures reveal the Federal Government is accelerating bumper taxpayer-financed advertising of its policies.

Latest industry figures show the Government spent $29 million in the past six months, up nearly 60 per cent on the same period last year.

More than $4 million was spent in just one week last month on promoting measures including the Medicare changes and the $600 child payment.

Spending by the Department of Health, largely on the Strengthening Medicare campaign, topped $10.5 million in the six months, according to Nielsen Media Research AdEx.

The Department of Family and Community Services spent $1.1 million and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet $3.2 million.

There is much more to come according to information released to the Opposition, which has estimated the advertising bills will total $122 million this year. The Government says the figure is about $90 million.

Mr Howard, who insisted yesterday he would rely on 'gut instinct' on when to go to the country, would not rule out calling the contest tomorrow, for an August 7 poll.

While most insiders say a move tomorrow is unlikely, government departments in recent weeks have rushed to clear any policy initiatives before the election campaign puts the Government into caretaker mode.

We really need better rules on government advertising and we need a fixed date for federal elections.

The constitution says:

Duration of House of Representatives.
28. Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.

That's just not good enough. Note that the term is not 3 years and there's no provision for when a new House must meet after the election. The last federal election was 10 November 2001. The last day for the next federal election, because of the gap between election day and the first meeting of the House, is 16 April 2005. That is too long and too flaky.

The government does not go into caretaker mode until the House is actually dissolved by the governor-general on the prime minister's advice. Politicised ads, paid for by public funds, are entirely legal until the dissolution. The government not only determines the date but is in a position to run a massive advertising campaign immediately before announcing the date. The Herald report merely confirms what we already guessed.

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