Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has defended an advertising campaign found by the state’s auditor general to be political and not complying with the law, saying he makes no apologies for “standing up for our state”.
The Victorian auditor general’s office (Vago) report tabled in parliament on Wednesday found the “Our Fair Share” campaign and several Big Build advertisements breached laws passed in 2017 to stop public sector agencies publishing political advertising.
The $1.7m Our Fair Share campaign, which ran from April to June 2019, advocated for more commonwealth funding for Victorian public schools, healthcare and transport projects.
It was run by the Department of Education and Training, the Department of Health (which was the Department of Health and Human Services at the time) and the Department of Transport, after discussions with the Premier’s Private Office and the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
The campaigns involved advertisements on television, radio, print media and digital platforms, and on “live banners” at football stadiums, and coincided with the 2019 federal election, which was announced on 11 April and held on 18 May.
The Vago report found the advertisements were political as they “did more than state facts and data about government funding”.
“The statements about the Victorian government appeared to have a positive tone,” Vago said. “They referred to billions of dollars or ‘record levels’ of investment. The statements about ‘Canberra’ were negative. They used language such as ‘cuts’ and ‘miss out’.
“Members of the public were likely to find the language in some of the advertisements to be particularly emotive. One of the television advertisements included the line ‘don’t let Canberra short-change our kids.’”
Speaking to reporters outside parliament on Wednesday, Andrews stood by the campaign, saying it led to election funding announcements for Melbourne airport rail link and a fast rail connection to Geelong.
“No matter who’s in power in Canberra, we will never apologise for standing up for our state,” Andrews said.
“We will fight hard to try and get what Victorians are owed and that is a fair share. We are nearly 30% of the country and we’re getting 6% of [new infrastructure funding]. If it weren’t so serious it would be an absolute joke.
“The auditor general’s entitled to their view, [but the] government believes we complied with all relevant matters and we wouldn’t hesitate to run that campaign again.”
The auditor general found two advertisements from the $11.5m campaign for the Big Build also breached the law as they promoted the works before providing information in the public interest about disruptions.
Victoria’s Big Build “Travel Plan B” print advertisement from 2018, for example, gave more space to the projects and their benefits than to the travel disruptions, it said.
Vago said the “Summer Blitz” phase, which ran in late 2019 and early 2020, was an improvement, with most of the advertisements striking a “balance between information about the projects and the disruptions”.
There were some exceptions – including a 60-second television advertisement that spent 42 seconds describing the Victorian government’s transport projects before mentioning disruptions.
Internal records also showed the Department of Transport and the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority tested whether their advertisements had changed perceptions about the Victorian government.
One survey included a question about whether the advertisements made them “feel positive” about the government.
The government agencies involved in both the campaigns maintained they complied with their obligations.
“The conflicting interpretations show the laws are not sufficiently clear. This needs to be remedied,” Vago said in the report.
“In addition, the agencies could not show, nor is it clear, that the campaigns were cost-effective.”
Vago made seven recommendations, including stronger oversight of government advertising and a better evaluation and reporting process of advertising cost-effectiveness.
The opposition leader, Matthew Guy, on Wednesday said the government’s priorities were wrong and Labor should repay the cost of the campaigns.
“I don’t see why Victorians should be forced to foot the bill for blatant political advertising,” Guy said.
The Victorian government spends at least $80m a year on advertising.