A move by the Victorian government has made details of its spending on advertorial with sites such as The Betoota Advocate impossible to access. By Patrick Hargreaves.
Victoria’s hidden deal with The Betoota Advocate
In the Instagram post, Felicity Tran is sitting at an airport with her legs folded under her. She is smiling at her phone. Outside, the sun seems to be setting. The headline reads: “Local Girl’s Melbourne Trip Declared Roaring Success After Managing To Nab A Lune Croissant”.
The caption notes she drained her bank account on a trip to the Victorian capital. “Look, you gotta do it,” she is quoted as saying. “When in Rome as they say. And besides, Melbourne is Australia’s equivalent of a European capital, just ask anyone who lives there.”
The post, from satirical news site The Betoota Advocate, was paid for by the Victorian government. It was one of several pieces of “native advertising” commissioned by the state’s tourism arm, Visit Victoria.
The details of the campaign remain opaque, however, because of a curious arrangement that allows the state tourism agency to function as a company. Although the site has run advertorial for companies including KFC and breweries Furphy and Stone & Wood, this was the first time a state agency had partnered with The Betoota Advocate.
Visit Victoria is distinct from other state tourism boards in that it is the only one in the country that does not have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. In response to an FOI request about payments made to Betoota for favourable articles, the Department of Jobs, Skills, Industry and Regions said: “Visit Victoria operates as a company limited by guarantee, with the Premier of Victoria being the sole shareholder. As a company, Visit Victoria is not subjected to the FOI Act.”
A spokesperson for the minister for Tourism said the agency did not have to meet FOI requests, but they were expected to facilitate journalist inquiries. The agency confirmed there was a partnership with Betoota as part of its Visit Melbourne campaign but refused to reveal details of the deal. “Visit Victoria partners with a wide range of media organisations to promote and drive visitation to our state. Details of any partnerships are commercial-in-confidence.”
Neither the minister for Tourism nor the premier’s private office were in possession of documents about the deal. The department gave a terse reply to a request for access, claiming Visit Victoria was a private company and that sharing details would undermine the independence of the public service. “The Office of the Minister for Tourism has no ability to request the documents from Visit Victoria anymore than it could request documents from any private tourism company … If the Premier was personally able to demand access to documents from private entities, even those funded by public monies, there is a strong likelihood the principle of an apolitical public service would be significantly threatened.”
This approach is in stark contrast to how the premier announced another marketing deal, when Visit Victoria paid $15 million to partner with Netball Australia. The minister for Tourism, Steve Dimopoulos, was happy to push the sentiment that Visit Victoria and the Victorian government were the same entity.
“As we prepare to host the world’s first regional Commonwealth Games in 2026,” Dimopoulos said in a press release, “our ground-breaking partnership with the Diamonds will allow us to further showcase why we do sport better than anywhere else in Australia.”
Setting up Visit Victoria was one of the first acts of the Andrews Labor government when it was elected in 2014. It merged the old agency, Tourism Victoria, with the Victorian Major Events Company, creating a single private company. This was a crucial detail for the governance of the new agency. The agency excited the premier, Daniel Andrews and his then Tourism minister, John Eren, who said at the time: “Visit Victoria is a game changer. This world-leading entity will fundamentally reshape the way we work with industry experts to market Victoria nationally and internationally to keep our state strong.”
Eren was correct. It was a game changer for how tourism worked in Victoria. By abolishing Tourism Victoria and placing its functions and duties into a private company, the board was now exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. It could act with the freedom of a private company but with the backing of state funds, while the government could reap the economic rewards but not be legally responsible for the decisions it made.
The 2015 changes meant Victoria was the only federal or state territory that did not consider its tourism agency an authority subject to FOI. Freedom of information responsibilities make public bodies accountable by giving the public access to documents about actions made in their name.
Victorian bodies that must comply with the act include the Victorian Veterans Council, Racing Victoria and the Mental Health Tribunal.
The change swept through unnoticed, with the Liberal opposition at the time focusing its concerns on the costs of designing a new logo. The governance changes that allow the tourism agency to act with less oversight than any other in the country were overlooked by all non-government parties at the time. Department officials believe the government should consider making private companies that are funded by public means subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The state created the “visitor economy recovery and reform plan” to recuperate nearly $20 billion in lost revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic and bushfires. As part of the plan, Visit Victoria will receive $633 million from the state government over four years. Marketing the capital is a key focus of the strategy. “Melbourne plays an important role in the visitor economy,” the plan says. “It is a key interstate and international brand for Victoria, and a stepping-stone for visitors to regional Victoria.”
The state will spend $58 million to market itself in an attempt to overcome what it describes as “unprecedented competition for travellers’ interest and increased marketing spending by Victoria’s competitors”.
While Betoota posted advertorials about tourists flocking to Melbourne, research by Tourism Research Australia suggests Victoria is taking the longest of any state to reach its pre-Covid interstate traveller numbers. Alongside South Australia and New South Wales, Victoria is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024, while Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory host more visitors than in pre-pandemic times. Victoria is the third-most popular state for domestic tourism, behind Queensland and NSW.
Competition for interstate tourism is fierce, with states bidding against each other for sporting events including the AFL, the NRL’s State of Origin series, and Super Netball and A-League soccer grand finals. Amid the peak of Covid-induced state parochialism, when state leaders were becoming increasingly conscious of the pandemic’s impact on tourism, Andrews went viral with his comment, “I don’t want to be offensive to South Australians, but why would you want to go there?”
Advertising with Betoota allows the state to go directly to its target audience, wrapped in the social capital of Australia’s largest comedy news organisation, which prides itself on “reporting fair and just news with the authenticity that rivals only the salt on the sunburnt earth that surrounds us here in the Queensland Channel Country”.
Although Betoota has been paid to advocate for Melbourne, it is unclear how the undisclosed spending will affect the editorial stance of the website. Victoria benefited from several articles in March and April promoting the state, with at least five stories published with #ad printed at the bottom of the story.
Not all articles were marked as ads on the website or on social media feeds. Those that were included “Report: Pretty Quiet Weekend In Melbourne”, “Boyfriend Told To Allow For At Least 60 Minutes Worth Of Laneway Photoshoots On Melbourne Trip” and “Report: Trip To Melbourne Not Complete Without Saying ‘Typical Melbourne Weather’ At Least Once”.
On June 3, however, the website lampooned the state’s out-of-date public transport system with the headline “ ‘The “Progressive” State!’ Laughs Sydney Train Commuter Reading About Victoria’s Trial Of Debit Card Fare Payment Option”.
Betoota did not respond to questions about the deal or how the partnership affected the company’s editorial policy. The partnership was a proposal by Visit Melbourne and there is no suggestion the premier or the minister for Tourism instigated the collaboration.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Partners in dime".
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