Denis Napthine is buying votes with our money

The Age: Denis Napthine is buying votes with our money. August 15, 2014. Shane Green Associate Editor of The Age

‘Better Public Transport. Better Roads.’ That ordering of ideas is critical.

Incumbency delivers many benefits for political parties as they approach elections, not least of which is running advertising campaigns on the public tab. Take, for example, the Moving Victoria campaign promoting the Napthine government’s transport vision splendid.

As these ads flood our screens, airwaves and print, there might be an understandable tendency to collectively shrug our shoulders, for this is just what happens, isn’t it? Both sides of politics do it, right? That’s true. But lately, those Moving Victoria ads are getting me angry.

No matter how much the campaign is rationalised as educating the public about new policies, the true intent is to win over voters, and revive the election prospects of a government that is behind in the polls. We are all aboard Denis Napthine’s election express.

‘We are all aboard Denis Napthine’s election express.’ Photo: Getty Images

The first thing to be said about the Moving Victoria campaign is that, when viewed in terms of persuasion, it is a smart piece of work. For those who have been around long enough, the title could have drawn inspiration from the slogan that defined the Kennett government, and one that made it on to our number plates: Victoria: on the move.

The Kennett era was defined by the concept of reviving the state’s fortunes; it was a government seen to be doing things – even if they weren’t all popular. Contrast the inertia of the first three years of this Coalition government, in which Victoria was barely moving.

The last year has been all about trying to kickstart the government, and for the Coalition, that has meant getting back on track – and on bitumen – with a transport vision. Its initial plan to build the contentious East West Link led to the portrayal of the government as being all about roads while ignoring public transport. The May state budget sought to rebalance the perception by committing – scheduled to start in 2016 – to the Melbourne Rail Link, including that pipe dream since the 1960s, a rail link to the airport. So the Moving Victoria slogan has a secondary line: ‘‘Better Public Transport. Better Roads.’’ That ordering of ideas is critical.

Throw into the mix policies such as level crossing removals and protective service officers on train stations, and the transport narrative is potentially a strong one for the government.

It is not the merits or otherwise of these policies that concern me here. Rather, it is that we – the taxpayers of Victoria – are paying for ads that clearly have a political objective.

In opposition, then Liberal leader Ted Baillieu railed against Labor using public money to ‘‘shamelessly’’ promote itself. (And for what it’s worth, Labor’s ads also riled me.) The Coalition promised oversight by a five-member independent panel, headed by a retired judge. That has morphed in a three-member group within the Premier’s Department, headed by a former Howard government bureaucrat.

‘Better Public Transport. Better Roads.’ That ordering of ideas is critical.

Even with election promises losing currency of late, the state Coalition has clearly retreated from its strident cries of ‘‘shame’’ while on the opposition benches. Tempted by having the resources of government at their disposal, the opportunity has been too good to pass up. What’s a little policy backdown here and there? And four years is a long time ago.

A transport department spokesman describes the Moving Victoria ads as a ‘‘public information campaign’’ – and at one level, that can be argued, for they do include public information. But they also clearly serve another purpose – persuasion of voters only months out from the November state election.

And, of course, we are paying for it.

I thought it would be useful to find out how much was being spent. It seemed like a reasonable question, and I would love to have provided a figure because, after all, this is public money, our money.

But my request was denied. I would have to wait until the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure delivers its annual report to Parliament towards the end of the last parliamentary sitting before the election. And in December – after the election – there would also be the Victorian government’s annual report on its advertising.

That was a disappointing response to a simple question.

Given the Coalition’s hands are now dirty, here’s the challenge for the Labor Party. Make a clear, strong commitment not to repeat its poor behaviour of the past. Rather, declare that a future Labor government will not use public money for political advertising.

In the meantime, we will continue to be inundated with the Moving Victoria message, with its faint echo of the Kennett years. And I’ll continue to get angry. It’s our money, and I wish I knew how much.

Shane Green is a contributing editor of The Age.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.