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'$120 million and counting' spent on 'Work Choices' propaganda

I heard the speech below by Labor Senator John Faulkner by chance on Wednesday 15 August. It is on pages 38 to 39 of the original pdf document, which can be downloaded from www.aph.gov.au/hansard/hanssen.htm. In his speech, Faulkner gave the hard facts and numbers behind the Howard Government's use of taxpayers' money to promote itself and its Industrial Relations legislation - legislation, which has changed the very fabric of our society, but which had not even put to electors during the 2004 elections. The figures, up to and including the latest spate of misleading, and factually wrong "Know Where You Stand" advertisements featuring the photogenic public servant Barbara Bennett has cost taxpayers "AU$120 million and counting". The total bill for government self-promotion since its re-election in 2004 election until has not been revealed by John Howard, but Senator Faulkner estimates it to be between AU$800million and AU$1 billion, much of it paid to the Liberal Party's own advertiser Ed Horton.

Of course, the Howard Government has not been alone in such abuses of taxpayer funds. The previous Hawke and Keating Federal Labor governments also notoriously spent lavishly on self-promotion as have many Liberal and Labor state Governments. However, all of these are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Howard Government's efforts, and it would be hard to find an example of any other advertising campaign which is so dishonest and any other piece of legislaton which is so harmful to the interests of ordinary working Australians as the Howard Government's Industrial Relations 'reforms'.

None of this must be forgotten, whatever anger many voters feel against current state Labor governments such as the dictatorial pro-business, anti-environmental Queensland Beattie Labor government.

The re-election of the Howard government, which is prepared to use so much money, which would be far better spent on building schools, hospitals or repairing Australia's damaged environment. in order to deceive its constituency, poses a mortal threat to democracy.

John Howard's Government's government must be thrown out of office and a full public inquiry into its abuses of power must be conducted. If laws are found to have been breached, they must be prosecuted to the full extent possible, and if such laws do not exist they must be enacted so that this experience is never repeated.

The speech below is a typically excellent speech by Senator John Faulkner - the kind of which goes largely unreported in the major newspapers. I could not find any evidence of any reporting of it, even in newspapers more disposed toward honest objective reporting such as the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age. Possibly the bonanza in advertising revenue flowing from this taxpayer-funded blitz has induced even these newpapers to turn a blind eye to this public scandal of first order magnitude.

Liberal Party Workplace Relations

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (1.38 pm)-There is a long and disturbing story in Australian public life, a tale with its origins in a political and economic framework that ignores longstanding Australian values of fairness and opportunity. It is a tale that has unfolded more rapidly since the 2004 election, and the most recent chapter in this story is now before us.

The 2004 federal election saw the Prime Minister's party gain control of this chamber. That was the same election when the Prime Minister promised Australian families that he would keep interest rates at record lows but made no mention of an extreme agenda of stripping away the take-home pay and conditions of hardworking Australians. But, once Mr Howard had control of the parliament after the 2004 election, he used that control to force through the unfair industrial relations laws that later became known as Work Choices. With those laws, the Howard government also introduced two extraordinary programs of promotion: the promotion of these unfair laws and the promotion of the Howard government's re-election hopes.

The first Work Choices advertising program, the one that ran at the time of the introduction of the Work Choices laws, was a monolithic $55 million promotion exercise. It was impossible to turn on a television without seeing the Work Choices ads, and they were brought to the TV screen by the Liberal Party's own ad man, Ted Horton. But their spending program did not end there. In early January 2006, employer organisations were slamming the advertising campaign. The then Chief Executive of Australian Business Ltd, Mr Mark Bethwaite, said:

TV advertisements have not worked ... What we need is practical, solution focused materials which allow employersto apply Work Choices to their workplace.

Within days, in late January 2006, the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations announced:

The WorkChoices Employer Advisor Programme (EAP) is only one element of a wider information and education campaign that will ensure all workers, their families and employers are aware of the changes and receive information about how WorkChoices may affect them.

He went on to say:

The aim of the EAP is to ensure that there are advisors around Australia, including rural and regional areas, able to educate and assist employers to implement the reforms on an industry basis.

The two initial stages of the Employer Advisor Program were provided with funding of more than $20 million throughout the 2006 calendar year. A subsequent fund of $20 million has been provided for a further round of the EAP in the 2007 calendar year.

Then we came to another chapter in the Howard government's shameless self-promotion rort. That chapter started in April, when the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications approved the Open Mind Research Group to undertake workplace relations research. These reports were received in late April and have formed the strategy of the government's repositioning in industrial relations over the past four months. Thanks to leaked research detailed in the Australian, we know this research drove the dropping of the title 'Work Choices' from the government's lexicon, the renaming of its IR institutions, the establishment of the so-called 'fairness test' and the use of an 'appropriate figurehead' of the Workplace Authority in advertising.

It also lead to a new blitz of advertising - advertising that started before the full drafting instructions for the legislation had been sent to Parliamentary Counsel. And the cost for this round of advertising is $23 million, and still counting. At that time, a detailed research report by Crosby Textor was leaked to the media. In that research report, the Liberal Party's campaign directors noted:

The arrival of Kevin Rudd into the Labor leadership has also given voters renewed confidence ...to express their reservations about WorkChoices; and especially in the absence of counter claims or information to the anti-IR messages being disseminated by the unions.

But in June, when the Liberal apparatchiks down at Crosby Textor were preparing this report, they were also preparing a second research report for the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry pro-Work Choices campaign. In their research report for the business campaign, they proposed advertising that would be 'a counterpoint to the one-sided ads of the unions' as well as being 'immediate countering of Labor's and the unions' scare campaign'. Sounds familiar? Well, just yesterday, The Age newspaper detailed the fact that VECCI president Richard Holyman wrote to his board supporting the business campaign. The article read:

Holyman tried to convince fellow board members to support the advertisements. He linked the call for a donation to the fact that the Government had given grants to VECCI under the Employer Assistance Program to run Work Choices seminars.

[Holyman wrote] "It is apparent that the key contributors are not wanting a blatant political campaign, but believe that so much effort went into supporting the Work Choices package, we have to help defend it now ... we have had in excess of $600K in grants to help implement Work Choices."

This brings us to the most recent chapter in this story. This chapter concerns the advertising being undertaken by the self-styled Business Coalition for Workplace Reform. This is the group of employer organisations, led by the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, supporting a campaign of television advertising. It is important to acknowledge that only one part of the business community supports this campaign. In fact, many employers and employer organisations do not support this campaign. Many employers and employer organisations present their views in a more mature and appropriate manner. But the Business Coalition for Workplace Reform have a different agenda. They are not running advertisements advocating a specific policy position or providing important information. They are political ads. They use the partisan and pre-election messages, imageries and strategies of the Liberal Party. These organisations have received millions of dollars to promote Work Choices, and now the government calls on them to cough up money for advertising.

We now have media reports of a link between the Employer Advisor Program and the business advertising campaign. We have the role of Crosby Textor - the firm of the Liberal Party and Mr Howard's personal pollster, Mark Textor, and former Liberal Party Federal Director Lynton Crosby. They are the election strategists for the Liberal-National coalition and the advertising campaign strategists for the business coalition, and they advocate the same communication and electoral strategy for both of their clients. This is on top of a $120 million - that is $120 million, and counting - Work Choices campaign by the government, spending the tax dollars of hard-working Australian families.

This is a deeply disturbing development. It is disturbing that the BCA and ACCI have chosen to behave in this way. It is disturbing to suspect that the membership of the BCA and ACCI does not have the full story of what is being done in the name of these organisations. It is disturbing that all three campaigns - the campaigns of the government, of the Liberal Party and of the business coalition - look like they are actually just one campaign. And it is deeply disturbing that this political, partisan advertising campaign is designed to promote and argue for laws that hurt working Australians and their families.

This is just one more example of the Howard government's shameless exploitation of taxpayer funds and resources in a desperate attempt to cling on to office; one more example of shameless rorting by the Howard government; one more aspect of a taxpayer-funded reelection advertising splurge that, between the last election and the upcoming election, will come to between $800 million and $1 billion on advertising alone. Unsurprisingly, Mr Howard will not reveal just how much he will reach into the wallets and pockets and purses of taxpayers - of ordinary working Australians - to fund his re-election epic campaign. That is because after 11 years in office, I think Mr Howard actually believes that taxpayers' money is his own. It has been 11 long years of arrogance and incompetence from the Howard government, and I say again that it is time - it is long past time - that it is brought to an end.

Comments

The following comment has been copied from johnquiggin.com

Howard may not be as brutal as Mugabe, but he has all of the same traits. One billion dollars? wasted? I think that his passport should be confiscated so that he cannot skip the country when he is chucked out.

I am not against government advertising, in some cases it could be very useful e.g. encouraging people to switch from car to walking, cycling and/or public transport. But this "WorkChoices" advertising is infuriating - some of these "know where you stand" ads are so meaningless and seem designed to give some kind of false sense of assurance.

I am not sure how this problem could be regulated. For example, putting a cap on government advertising could limit the potential for public education on climate change or peak oil, if a government chose to educate (rather than mislead people). It would be good to have some kind of independent review board of government advertising comprised of academics, who checked the facts.

But certainly I would like to see regulations on advertising during political campaigns. There needs to be greater restrictions on the total amount of money that can be spend by each party. Perhaps the electoral commission also need to take a role in compiling information for all candidates and distributing an equal amount of information in a newsletter to all voters.

I consider a full page "Know where you stand" advertisement, which appeared in the Courier Mail of 3 August to be extremely misleading. It is impossible to believe that those who created that advertisement were not aware of that.

It makes the claim that

... employers can't sack you for taking time off because your kids are sick.

Or for making a formal complaint against your employer.
Or being a member of a union.

Perhaps they can't sack you for those specific reasons but the removal of unfair dismissal provisions for employees working for any company with less than 100 employees meeans that they can sack you for any number of other reasons. So if you do take time off because your kids are sacked or make a formal complaint against your employer, or in a union and find yourself sacked for another entirely different and trivial reason, then, for all practical purposes you have no recourse.

Also I think John Howard needs to decide whether the right for an employer to dismiss employees without cause is a good thing or a bad thing. When the "Work Choices" laws were initially heralded, John Howard insisted that the existence of unfair dismissal laws was a major factor which caused employers not to hire staff. His argument, repeated ad nauseum, was that the difficulty an employer faced in sacking a worker if that worker were to be found to be unsuitable would often cause the employer not to hire that worker in the first place in order to avoid taking that risk. For a while he pointedly habitually prepended the adjective 'job-destroying' whenever he referred to the unfair dismissal laws. If he truly believed that then he would have to now believe, assuming that there was any truth in the advertisement's claims that jobs will be lost as a result.

I think that Tristan's concern that legislative guarantees against abuses such as the "Work Choices" saturation advertising might have a side effective of preventing governments from engaging in useful advertising is unnecessary.

I don't believe that it would be that difficult to legislate against such campaigns as Work Choices. As an example, the initial AU$55 million campaign of 2005 occurred even before the details of the legislation were made known to the public. It would be easy to draft laws which preveetned that from occurring.

Tests of truthfulness that most "Know where you stand" would fail, could easily be devised.

If the Liberals wanted to advertise Work "Choices", they should have done so, AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE, before the last election.

If they had sought and won a mandate to introduce Work "Choices", the electorate would not now be so bitter about having these extreme unfair laws.