The government’s $70m budget for border protection propaganda is the latest in a long line of taxpayer-funded “messaging” exercises. By Mike Seccombe.

The taxpayer’s billions spent on government advertising

A scene from the Australian government’s anti-asylum seeker film, 'Journey'.
A scene from the Australian government’s anti-asylum seeker film, 'Journey'.
Credit: YouTube

It was May 25 last year that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked Mike Pezzullo for numbers on the cost of his department’s propaganda campaign directed at stopping the people smuggling trade. The secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection flicked the question to his offsider, Major-General Andrew Bottrell, newly installed head of Operation Sovereign Borders. Bottrell requested a couple of minutes to add up some large numbers.

At length, he came back with a number that would have gladdened the hearts of market researchers, copywriters, ad agencies, production houses, media buyers and news organisations on several continents.

“I have a figure of $70.7 million over 2013 through to 2018-19 – so, over a six-year period,” he said.

Next question: “What exactly is this money going to be spent on?”

A “very comprehensive strategic communications campaign”, said Bottrell, to be delivered in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Albania, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia.

The means by which it would be delivered, he said, would include “television, radio, press, print, online, social media, billboards, transit advertising, leaflets, stickers, community workshops and even street theatre”.

Sadly, how street theatre would be used to stop people smuggling was not further explored. Hanson-Young was more interested in another initiative: a telemovie for which, Bottrell said, $4.1 million had been allocated.

“I reckon Screen Australia would like that kind of money,” Hanson-Young said, before going on to confirm that an obscure production company called Put It Out There Pictures was in the process of casting, but had not yet begun shooting.

The senate committee hearing did not actually establish much that was new about the movie. The ABC’s Lateline program had already – some weeks earlier – aired details about not only the movie plan but the people who were to make it.

The writer and executive producer, Trudi-Ann Tierney, a veteran of production in this country, also had a long history of work in some of the world’s wilder places, including Papua New Guinea and Myanmar, and had even written a book about her years making dramas for Afghan television, entitled Making Soapies in Kabul.

The ABC quoted her book: “Ostensibly I was head of drama [for a local TV company]; but in truth I was nothing more than a propaganda merchant.”

She defended it as propaganda to good ends, but it certainly sounded very cloak and dagger. Her other work included an anti-terrorist police show called Eagle Four, which was funded by the United States embassy in Kabul, as well as programming funded by other embassies, United Nations bodies and aid agencies.

The revelations received surprisingly little media coverage, though – in part because the Labor opposition, keen to allow no point of difference between it and the government on refugee policy, expressed no concern.

This week, however, the film was finished at a cost, including promotion, of just under $6 million. Called Journey, it told of the travails of a group of Afghan asylum seekers trying to get to Australia by boat. It was shot in several locations, had a cast and crew from 13 countries, and had already shown in Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. It was to be available in a variety of Middle Eastern languages. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the production company did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s requests for comment.

1 . Seven and SBS series

By now you may be wondering the same thing as Lateline host Tony Jones, who introduced last April’s report on the subject by asking: “How did on-water matters become on-screen matters? How did the immigration department get into the movie business?”

In fact, the propaganda effort was not that new in concept, only in scale. As one source familiar with the immigration department’s “strategic communications” operation tells us, they’ve been doing it for years. Just much more cheaply.

Back in 2004 the department came to an agreement with the Seven Network to co-operate on a TV show called Border Security. It cost the department nothing except for a little time of some of its many PR people. It was cheap as chips for Seven as well, which really had to do nothing but point a camera and microphone, and edit the results.

It was a huge hit, consistently attracting a million or more viewers in Australia. It was also sold overseas, to networks in 27 countries. It was mostly shot in various Australian airports and focused on drugs and other contraband, and visa issues. It never dealt with boat arrivals, though. That was too expensive. One attempt to put a crew on water failed to encounter any people smugglers.

The department also co-operated with SBS on its series Go Back to Where You Came From, also a relatively inexpensive production on the government side.

And the department also had its own in-house production capability to shoot, produce and put to air material for various media in various countries and multiple languages, advertising the inadvisability of trying to come to Australia uninvited. One effort to dissuade Sri Lankan boat people simply involved lining up a couple of the country’s cricketers, here on tour. The cost, according to a source, was a few airfares, a bit of staff time, “$150 and a red cricket ball”. It was apparently quite effective.

But budgets and ambitions grew under Pezzullo after the Abbott government set the department of border protection up as a paramilitary organisation.

“The Coalition threw a lot of money at what is now border protection,” says a source. “The department was very keen to demonstrate they were agile and innovative.”

But many people, from security experts to marketing experts, question how much extra bang the government gets for its $6 million, 90-minute epic, compared with a 30-second TV advertisement. People consume ads incidentally, while looking at something else. To sit down and watch a telemovie involves intent on the part of the audience.

Dr Andrew Hughes, who specialises in political marketing at Australian National University, is sceptical.

“The question is, where is the motivation? What’s the desire for a potential asylum seeker to want to watch the movie in the first place? Where’s the demand for people to sit down and watch a movie about not coming to Australia?” he says. “To me it beggars belief.” 

An expert in government communications asks a more fundamental question. “I thought we had stopped the boats,” he says. “So why do we need to spend $6 million to persuade people not to get on the boats?”

The government isn’t saying. All we know is that it has allocated $70.7 million to such efforts, and it’s burning a hole in Mike Pezzullo’s pocket.

2 . Long history of government advertising

Graeme Orr, professor of law and politics at the University of Queensland, suggests the first really big political advertising campaign in Australia was initiated under Robert Menzies’ opposition.

“It goes back 70 years to the days when Labor was proposing to nationalise the banks,” he says.

“The Liberal opposition developed a radio soap opera involving a family called the Australs. It was one of the great splurges in political advertising, although it wasn’t funded by the government. The Liberals and the banks did it in tandem.”

It was wildly successful. “In fact, a law was passed later that you couldn’t run dramatic political fiction, because it was seen as so powerful and successful in telling an anti-socialist story, dressed up as a soap opera.”

Notwithstanding efforts to regulate political advertising in decades since – usually half-hearted, because governments have come to understand they have a huge advantage over oppositions – it has grown into an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In recent years, the Commonwealth government has consistently come in third in terms of is total advertising spending, behind Coles and Woolworths. It waxes and wanes in tandem with the electoral cycle, but usually tops $100 million a year. 

And that is just the spending on placement. The amount spent on market research, focus group testing, creative input and production is hard to quantify precisely, but probably adds at least a third to that cost.

Then there are the state governments, which also spend lavishly, putting their message before the public.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with a lot of it, says Orr. Much is genuinely informative and of public benefit. But much, also, is not.

“It’s a grey continuum,” he says. “It’s a black hole, because they never release the market research, which makes it difficult to know when the executive is doing things that are scientifically based – if you call market research a science – when these things are planned for partisan gain.”

In 2011-12, under Labor, the federal government ran 27 advertising campaigns at a cost of just under $140 million.

The biggest single amount was $20 million spent on recruitment ads for the defence forces. More than $30 million was spent on health – encouraging people not to smoke, to lead healthier lifestyles, to donate organs for transplant.

Labor also spent $13 million promoting its national broadband network. Sure, there was a large information component, but there was a political tinge, given that the two sides of politics were in disagreement about the form of the NBN rollout. At least the framework legislation for the NBN was in place before the ads started.

That wasn’t the case, though, when Labor committed $16.8 million to its “Clean Energy Future” campaign. The advertising preceded the legislation and was seen as acutely political, given that many in the opposition, Tony Abbott foremost among them, were dead against Labor’s plans for addressing climate change.

Abbott complained to the auditor-general, and the response bore him out.

“Where legislation has not been passed before the launch of an advertising campaign, information in creative material which is presented as fact carries the risk of changing if the legislation is amended or not passed,” the auditor found.

It noted that unlike Labor’s paid parental leave campaign – which also began before the legislation passed in 2010 – the radio and TV ads carried no disclaimer to that effect.

3 . Broken promises of reform

But outrageous as Labor’s behaviour was, it wasn’t the first time. Nor would it be the last. Let’s back up a decade or so to see the way things escalated.

In 1995, the Keating government spent $12 million to promote its Working Nation package. It was a time of high unemployment and the government argued the intent was to counter negative perceptions of the unemployed and to inform potential employers of government subsidies available if they took on new workers.

Then opposition leader John Howard complained loudly that the ads were political. In particular, he complained about the duration of the campaign, which continued for almost two years after the government’s package of reforms was introduced, to just before the 1996 election.

Howard promised that in government he would ensure that all government advertising would first be submitted to the auditor-general for approval. This proved to be one of his many non-core promises. Ten years later, nothing had changed, except that Howard had pioneered an even more blatant form of partisan advertising – advertising in support of prospective policy.

He was lauded for having the courage to take his plan for a GST to an election, but the way the government went about preparing the public for it was less than laudable. The GST didn’t come into operation until July 1, 2000. The ads started years earlier, just before the 1998 election. The total cost to taxpayers was at least $119 million, on the official data, and some estimates go up to half a billion.

As Sally Young noted in her definitive book on the history of government advertising, Government Communication in Australia, former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris described the campaign as the first to “use taxpayers’ money to advertise what a government would do if it were re-elected. Voters paid to advertise the government’s election promises.”

Graeme Orr notes that Kevin Rudd “brought in changes that made things a bit more above board, such as a panel of bureaucrats to scrutinise campaigns”. But the fact is that both sides skirt the rules. The current government’s campaign in support of higher education changes under then education minister Christopher Pyne is a recent example. The ads ran; the proposed reforms died in the senate.

And right now Labor has a complaint in to the auditor-general about the use of Turnbull’s defining slogan, “There’s never been a more exciting time to be Australian”, in promotional material for the government’s innovation package. The slogan disappeared from the “Ideas Boom” website following the complaint.

There are so many examples, and both major parties are culpable.

Orr says Australia is better than some countries, such as Brazil, but it was “the worst” among comparable Western democracies when it comes to misusing government advertising.

Each side complains about abuses when in opposition and then commits similar abuses when in government. It’s hard to determine how persuasive these campaigns are, but easy to see they spend billions of taxpayer dollars.

In the grand scheme of things, Mike Pezzullo’s asylum-seeker movie is small beer. And you won’t see Labor complain about it anyway.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2016 as "Inside our state propaganda fix".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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