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The best that money can buy

For those who were dismayed by last year’s federal election campaign, during which interest rates of 15 years ago moved voters more than current issues of social justice, this is an important book. Sally Young, a political scientist and lecturer in media and communications at the University of Melbourne, has written a comprehensive analysis of political advertising, which tells a great deal about how political power is exercised in Australia. Drawing on the author’s doctoral thesis, the book is lively and readable, animated by her conviction that Australian democracy has been weakened and her fellow citizens should be informed. It is refreshing to read a book which has newspaper advertisements, television scripts and advertising jingles as well as footnotes referring to a wide range of sources, including political biographies, journalism and party archives.

Some things have not changed. Menzies’ 1949 slogan ‘It’s time for a change’ preceded Whitlam’s ‘It’s time’, the ultimate political slogan lacking any disagreeable content. Ben Chifley understood the importance of ‘the hip pocket nerve’, the self-interest and materialism of the Australian electorate. When Bob Hawke as a novice opposition leader proposed campaigning on reconciliation, Neville Wran’s advice was clear: ‘If the greedy bastards wanted spiritualism, they’d join the fucking Hare Krishnas.’

The power of celebrity is not new. Winston Churchill visited Charlie Chaplin on the set of The Gold Rush; Sir Robert Menzies courted Don Bradman; Gough Whitlam abandoned Brylcreem and embraced a bevy of celebrities (remember Little Pattie?) who appeared in that famous television commercial which Rupert Murdoch generously funded. This has proved to be one of Rupert’s most far-sighted investments, creating a subsidised income stream for the media.

Young details how the scale and impact of political advertising have grown. In Australian federal elections more than $30 million is now spent on paid advertising, matching the sum provided by taxpayers to the major parties. A further $80 million comes from corporate and private donors, many of whom hide their donations within the Cormack Foundation or Labor Resources. Voters in marginal seats are targeted in what John Singleton called ‘the ultimate one-day sale’. Opponents are attacked, and appeals are made to the anxieties and prejudices of the electors. Only 21 per cent of advertisements now mention the party name, and policy detail is rare. Telephone contact and direct mailing based on extensive databases are highly effective, enabling the major parties to make claims to individual voters without contradiction or debate.

Governments have far larger advertising budgets than do political parties. In 2004 the Howard Government spent $92 million on campaigns such as Strengthening Medicare as part of $500 million spent on advertising by all Australian governments. (This figure does not include the estimated 4000 journalists working for the federal or state governments as part of their communication strategies.) In 2000, Joe Cocker’s song Unchain My Heart was purchased for $250,000 by the Commonwealth as part of $118 million spent to promote the GST. Governments have also used  extensive direct mailing at election times, the Bracks Government making the 2002 list of the top ten national direct mailers behind Coles-Myer and Reader’s Digest.

This book explores the damage caused by the growth of political advertising. The major parties and incumbent governments have been favoured and minor parties handicapped; political donors have gained influence while party members and community groups have lost. As the roles of marketing and communications experts have developed, party members have become marginalised, the influence of corporate donors increasing as party membership has declined. Large advertising expenditure has in turn given governments greater leverage with the media. Young provides instances where political leaders have used their advertising budgets to punish or reward local media.

Readers may be surprised to learn that very few countries permit paid political advertising during election campaigns. Canada, New Zealand and Germany permit political advertising with strict controls on spending and timing. Only Taiwan, the United States and Australia permit paid political advertising with very few restrictions. In Australia’s case there is a three-day blackout in the electronic media which includes polling day. Such is the lack of regulation that Pauline Hanson is likely to remain the only campaigning politician to be charged, convicted and jailed.

Australia’s major political parties enjoy taxpayer funding, unlimited private donations and no spending limits, a less regulated environment than even the US.

Other countries have regulations to improve the quality and fairness of political campaigns. France does not permit presidential candidates to use the flag, the national anthem or archival footage of opponents without their consent. By contrast, larrikin Australian advertising agencies have pioneered the use of simulation and enhancement, portraying Bob Hawke with Pinocchio’s nose, and a shocked John Howard reading his bank balance at the ATM.  Such is the dominance of negative advertising in Australia that during the 1996 campaign Paul Keating appeared on television more for the Coalition than for the ALP.  

Given that Australia has the world’s worst practice in regard to political advertising, there is much that can be improved. Young makes 18 recommendations for change that merit serious public discussion. These include independent scrutiny of government advertising, the reintroduction of campaign spending limits and more free time for political parties based on their verified number of members—a salutary proposal given that half the current membership of the Victorian ALP is reputed to be bogus.

In the PR State where policies are debated less, it has become more difficult to promote social justice and challenge powerful interests. Sally Young’s book is therefore very important for those interested in political and social change. At a time of rigorous targeting of disability pensions and other benefits, the freewheeling use of taxpayers’ money for party and government advertising may be an issue, like parliamentarians’ superannuation, whose time has come. 

The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Advertising, Sally Young. Pluto Press, 2004. isbn 1 864 03304 5, rrp $34.95

Peter Yewers is a former Victorian public servant who is currently a researcher in the philanthropic sector.




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