FOI documents reveal the Rudd government flouted its own advertising guidelines to spend millions on the controversial ‘By boat, no visa’ campaign. By Tom Swann.

Rudd’s irregular ad spend on people smugglers

National print advertisements in 2013.
National print advertisements in 2013.
Credit: Lauren Gianoli

Two months out from the 2013 election, at a press conference in Papua New Guinea, prime minister Kevin Rudd and immigration minister Tony Burke declared unprecedented changes to Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

Any asylum seekers arriving by boat would be taken to PNG for processing. If found to be refugees, they would be settled in PNG, not in Australia.

The next day, in every capital city around Australia, hundreds of thousands of newspapers opened to reveal full-page advertisements paid for with public funds. In them, a lonely fishing boat bobbed at sea, stamped with the text “You Won’t Be Settled in Australia”.

Government ads soon appeared on commercial radio, and were later found online, in local newspapers and in ethnic media. The ads cost $2.7 million in the first week alone and $6.5 million in total. The campaign, known as “By boat, no visa”, was roundly condemned. Many saw it as a cynical misuse of public funds on the eve of a likely disastrous election for Labor. 

Independent senator Nick Xenophon said, “this whole campaign stinks”. Greens leader Christine Milne said, “Labor’s electoral fortunes in the polls are not a national emergency.”

The Abbott opposition at first seemed stunned by the hardline policy, calling for more detail. But they soon attacked a “highly political” and “gross misuse of public funds” to target voters, even claiming a breach of convention before the caretaker period had begun.

Under processes set up by Rudd in his first term, an Independent Communications Committee (ICC)scrutinised major government advertising proposals against guidelines including the need for evidence, cost-effectiveness and messages relevant to target audiences. On this occasion, citing “extreme urgency”, the government bypassed the processes.

Xenophon was unconvinced. “There is no ‘extreme urgency’ in saturating Australian households with these ads – it’s a politically expedient ploy.” Yet even when Xenophon complained to the auditor-general, the department did not release its secretary’s own internal assessment against the guidelines. The auditor-general acknowledged this raised “reasonable questions as to the targeting, scale and cost-effectiveness of this campaign”.

1 . Sudden campaign

Now, nearly a year later, documents from the Department of Immigration released under freedom-of-information laws reveal that this controversial advertising campaign was developed and approved in less than a day.

The first email was sent at 8pm on Thursday, July 18, by the department’s head of communications, Sandi Logan. It contained the guidelines’ criteria for exempting a campaign from normal scrutiny, with the words “extreme urgency” underlined.

Close to midnight someone in the prime minister’s office sent a media plan – “canvassed and locked-in” – to Burke’s media advisers and senior immigration bureaucrats. The sender’s name is redacted, but the email is described elsewhere as coming from “the Minister’s Gmail”.

The email ordered “Full-page ads in all metro tabloids the day after the announcement and the next 3 days”, “Ads in all major ethnic papers”, “radio spots” and “social media”, with a budget of $30 million. It also provides the campaign slogan.

The next day, as Rudd and Burke announced the policy from PNG, the department’s communications officers scrambled to meet deadlines. Burke’s advisers vetted the process closely, choosing copy and changing single words, and incorporating feedback from the prime minister’s office.

By 2pm on Friday the ads were booked. By 4.30pm the content was locked in. The government media broker provided a “media rationale” detailing media spots ordered by the prime minister’s office half a day earlier.

The campaign would centre on “major metro dailies with focus on Sydney and Melbourne” and “radio spots … focusing on Sydney and Melbourne in major stations such as Nova, Today Network, Triple M and also in CALD [Culturally and Linguistically Diverse]”. The document continued: “Activity has been specified to reach all Australians ... priority will be to achieve maximum reach within the campaign restrictions.”

Some time during the Friday, July 19, the department secretary signed off a statement of compliance against the strict government advertising guidelines. The campaign required such a compressed timeline because “its subject matter relates to an urgent obligation to inform the community about the recent changes to migration policy for the target audience”. There is no indication as to why such an important campaign had not been developed and approved until the surprise policy announcement earlier that day.

2 . Domestic audience targetted

Arabic, Afghan and Sri Lankan media were targeted, but greater money was spent on mainstream media. Or, as the secretary put it: “The specific diaspora communities were identified because they represent the highest proportion of [boat arrivals].” But “the Australian public was included as a secondary target audience as friends and influencers of the primary target audiences”.

The guidelines require that: “Campaign information should clearly and directly affect the interests of recipients.” There is no indication of how the information relates to the interests of “the Australian public”.

Responding to the requirement that “the campaign is informed by appropriate research”, the secretary said diaspora communities communicate with people offshore about immigration processes, but “there are low levels of knowledge and awareness” about these.

A “harder-hitting” concept was needed. The research also showed that the boat image evoked “fear, sadness, hopelessness, panic and tragedy” among those who had arrived by boat.

Under “societal benefits”, the secretary cited the need to reduce risks to Australian personnel and “cost to Australian taxpayers” from ocean rescues, as well as costs of “caring for those asylum seekers who successfully reach Australia alive”.

Later, still on July 19, after the ads had been booked and copy finalised, Logan distributed the “rationale” – “just a little paperwork”. Logan then distributed some talking points, because “once the ads begin running, you may get some questions”. In those talking points, “the media selected … are primarily the in-language channels relevant to the target diaspora communities”.

As the mainstream ads launched, the government assured critics the targeted ethnic advertising was coming, but that it took longer to book.

3 . Rudd's last-minute style

The emails bring into stark relief the top-down, last-minute style of public administration that Rudd’s government took to notorious new heights. They also cast in a difficult light some of the government’s rhetoric at the time.

Publicly, Labor claimed the ads targeted people smugglers. But the emails state repeatedly that the campaign targeted the “Australian public” and ethnic diaspora communities.

The auditor-general said the department advised “the targeting was informed by third-party evaluation research”. The emails cite no research about targeting “the Australian public”.

Special minister of state Mark Dreyfus said the ads were “a matter of national security”. The emails do not mention national security.

4 . Government guidelines for advertising

In the context of the recent history of government advertising, the campaign seems an especially audacious move. Rudd criticised John Howard’s profligacy as “a cancer on our democracy” and put in place the Independent Communications Committee and new guidelines soon after winning government.

Then in 2010 Labor used the “extreme urgency” exemption to launch an advertising response to the slick, multimillion-dollar campaign from the mining industry. One of Julia Gillard’s first acts as prime minister was to call an advertising truce with the miners. Gillard later came under fire for her extensive advertising to explain the carbon price.

Now the issue has arisen again. Two weeks ago, Labor alleged the Abbott government intended to buy advertising for its unpopular austerity budget.

It’s a charge the government has been quick to reject. The minister for finance, Mathias Cormann, says there was no plan for “a major taxpayer-funded advertising campaign” to sell the budget.

“To the contrary,” he says, “in the budget we actually announced a $43.3 million reduction in the government’s communications budget.”

Still, Cormann insists the government will “ensure people impacted by changes in the budget are informed about how those changes will impact on them”. It remains unclear how.

In November 2013, the Abbott government abolished the ICC, rebadging most of what remained as “short-term interim guidelines”. Early this year, the Finance Department assured a senate committee the ICC was only ever able to “provide assurance” but “did not decide or determine in any kind of way”. A spokesperson for the special minister of state, Michael Ronaldson, said only that the government is considering “longer-term governance arrangements”.

In the aftermath of the 2013 asylum-seeker campaign, Xenophon promised to “introduce legislation when parliament resumes to tighten the guidelines and have heavy penalties on ministers who breach them”, based on a bill Kim Beazley had proposed as opposition leader. The Greens have also proposed stronger scrutiny and review, but found no support from the major parties.

It is telling that, as the 2013 election loomed, the auditor-general said in response to Xenophon that it remains “challenging for governments to exercise restraint”, especially “in the lead-up to elections”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 7, 2014 as "Irregular advertising".

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Tom Swann is a Canberra-based writer and researcher at The Australia Institute.

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