Friday, June 4, 2010

Picking which "emergency" to advertise

There’s something oddly out of focus about the controversy raging over the Federal Government’s $38 million advertising campaign explaining tax changes including the contentious Resources Super Profits Tax (RSPT). The campaign has been cast by some as back-tracking by the Rudd Government on political advertising, a hypocritical regression to the kind of obscene expenditure by the former Coalition Government on the GST and WorkChoices campaigns.

The charge has stemmed from the exemption granted the campaign by Cabinet Secretary, Senator Joe Ludwig, in apparent accordance, it must be said, with guidelines announced in 2008 and most recently published in March this year.

The guidelines give the Cabinet Secretary power to exempt campaigns from compliance “on the basis of national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reason”. Argument should proceed, then, not on the fact of the exemption, but on whether it qualifies in these terms.

If it does, then a further pertinent but more awkward question for the Government is what other issues ought to have qualified on the same grounds, but have not been seen to warrant a similar campaign – climate change being a strong contender.

Dealing first with the exemption, on its face this campaign ought to qualify. The tax changes are significant, with major implications for the public interest. The first evidence I have seen of the campaign – a full-page advertisement in Melbourne’s The Sunday Age – includes the simple claim that “before the last mining boom, the Australian people received $1 in every $3 of mining profits through royalties and resource charges. By the end of that boom, our share had fallen to just $1 in every $7”.

A factual claim, it would seem, capable of verification or otherwise, and consistent with recent comments by former Minerals Council head David Buckingham on ABC Radio National, that royalties have declined as a percentage of miners’ profits. Economists have also come out in support of the tax, while Treasury Secretary, Dr Ken Henry, has questioned the miners’ assertions of the broader economic impacts of the tax, and the role of the resources industry in seeing Australia through the global financial crisis.

Though the campaign has been granted an exemption, the closer it is seen to adhere to the guidelines, the stronger the case for its acceptance. In addition to requiring the stakes to be high and the expenditure large enough to warrant scrutiny (over $250,000), the kinds of tests the guidelines include relate to information, education, and the encouragement of the “informed consideration of issues”. They also refer to campaigns “informed by appropriate research or evidence” that “clearly and directly affect the interests of recipients”.

Despite the exemption, then, there is scope for ongoing testing of the campaign against the guidelines to assess through public debate how justified it really is. So far, there has been little that has echoed anything like the propagandistic tones of the “Unchain my Heart” GST campaign, or the readily falsifiable campaign mounted in support of WorkChoices, the acceptance of which was decidedly not in the interests of the campaign’s recipients – as judged by them at the November 2007 Federal election.

If we could posit the perfect public interest campaign, it should not be disqualified as “political advertising” simply due to alignment with the policies of a Government seeking to act in the genuine public interest. That would leave the Government fighting with one hand tied behind its back against the well-funded campaign of any lobby group attempting to paint as detrimental a measure undermining its own narrow self-interest but not resulting in any broader, national disadvantage. Without the RSPT campaign, this was the scenario threatened by the Minerals Council of Australia.

In the Council’s feigned altruism – in its disputed claims that the industry saved Australia from the global financial crisis, that it contributes appropriately to the nation’s coffers, and that the RSPT will have innumerable flow-on impacts for investment, jobs, businesses and prices – the lobby group seems to be making a case based on the public interest rather than its own profit margins. Yet where is the accountability for its campaign, resourced at a likely governmental but secret scale? Where are the requirements for veracity, information, education and research placed on it?

Where the lack of focus enters this issue, lies instead with the awkward question prompted by reasoned acceptance of the Government’s RSPT campaign. Why have we not had a similar campaign, subject to similar strictures, based on climate change?

I am deeply struck by this question having raised the idea of a public interest campaign around climate in an April meeting with Martin Ferguson, energy and resources minister in the Australian Government and, as it happens, my local federal MP.

Ferguson was being challenged over his support for fossil fuels and the climate inaction of the Rudd Government. He claimed that the Government had taken a climate position it thought would “bring the community along”. Yet when might there have been a more truly urgent time to campaign on the need for strong climate action – far stronger than the now-shelved emissions trading scheme (ETS) – than in the lead-up to the November 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, and during the Senate’s deliberations on the legislation?

While climate has fallen off the Government’s agenda, the climate clock hasn’t stopped ticking. Commitments under the Copenhagen Accord have, for example, been estimated to lead to warming of more than three degrees Celsius, substantially above the levels where further dangerous impacts will be locked in. Surely this argues for a public interest campaign “on the basis of national emergency, extreme urgency or other compelling reason”.

“We’ve made it very difficult for ourselves with political advertising,” Ferguson commented at the meeting. Yet, less than two months later, we have another campaign – with which I admittedly agree – justified on a basis that also applies to our climate emergency, where international leadership by Australia might well influence stronger international action.

It’s true that the recent federal budget provides $30 million over two years for better climate communication, but the funding is to be drawn from a climate change department expected to find savings of $200 million (1). There is also the question of what an effective climate campaign might look like, in contrast with what the Government might be willing to say.

Whether or not such a campaign were granted an exemption from the advertising guidelines similar to the RSPT, it would need to be based on verifiable research that stood to inform and educate the Australian public on the need to take strong climate measures due to the highly likely serious impacts on the Australian (and world) population if this were not done.

A claimed defender of the science of climate change, the Government must concede that the body of peer-reviewed scientific research supporting strong action far exceeds any factual basis it is now giving for its resources tax. Nor has there been a clearer example of a well funded and pervasive misinformation campaign than has been orchestrated by the deniers of climate change, who remain unaccountable for the impacts they would allow.

The trouble is that any truly honest campaign around climate would demonstrate the dishonesty and ineffectiveness of the Government’s own climate measures, that it is indeed closer to the Coalition and the climate deniers than it is to policies that would support a safe climate.

In essence, a better critique of the RSPT campaign is not that it is unjustified, but that the Government has been political in its picking of emergencies to advertise. If the RSPT controversy serves as a grand distraction from this fact, dangerous climate change may tax us all to far greater consequence.

1. The savings expected from the Department of Climate Change are discussed by Katharine Murphy in “Of backflips and backchat”, The Age, Insight, p.5, 15 May 2010.

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.