Watchdog called on to investigate taxpayer-funded ads

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The Age: Watchdog called on to investigate taxpayer-funded ads October 22, 2014 Richard Willingham, State Political Correspondent

The state’s financial watchdog has been called on to investigate the Napthine government’s latest advertising strategy, with Labor accusing the Coalition of using taxpayer funds to campaign for the party.

On Wednesday, Premier Denis Napthine defended the new taxpayer-funded advertisements spruiking the government’s re-election promise to create 200,000 jobs as “government business”.

On Thursday Shadow Attorney-General Martin Pakula wrote to Auditor-General John Doyle asking him to urgently review the advertisments, saying that the commercials were not promoting a government initiative but were instead promoting the Liberal party.

He says if Mr Doyle finds them in breach of guidleines then the government should pull the ad. Mr Pakula also wants Mr Doyle to advise if payment for the ads should have been made by the Liberal party.

“The Opposition is not aware of any funds being appropriated for the implementation of this plan and there appears to be no intention for any element of it to be in place during the life of the current parliament,” Mr Pakula wrote.

“It is solely a commitment by the Liberal Party regarding what it may do in the future should it again be elected to Government.”

Mr Pakula said the Labor party would announce an advertising policy in the coming weeks.

“I can assure Victorians they will see nothing of this nature under a future Labor government,” Mr Pakula said.

The government, like the Brumby government before it, has been under fire for using government advertising for political gain. The Moving Victoria campaign containing details of the East West Link and the rail link to the airport has caused particular anger.

The television commercial, which began screening last week, talks about the government’s commitment to creating 200,000 jobs in the next five years.

The commercial shows a young man and his parents, and shows him working on building sites. It also shows a young woman studying at university and an older man being told he has a job after retraining.

The advertisement says the government is investing in large projects to create new jobs to ensure Victorians have jobs. The ad directs people to a jobs website.

The government’s $33 billion job plan was launched this month at a press conference at which Premier Denis Napthine could not name the details of the plan. He was also asked if there would be an ad campaign for the strategy.

“I’m not aware of that,” Dr Napthine said on October 7.

In opposition, the Coalition attacked Labor for spending more than $100 million on government advertising campaigns.

It seized the political moment by promising a five-person panel headed by a retired judge to scrutinise all government advertising. The panel took more than a year to establish, comprises only three public servants and reports every six months.

Asked on Wednesday to explain how it was not political advertising, especially given the 200,000 jobs pledge is based on re-electing a Coalition government, Dr Napthine said the advertising was “about government business”.

“I think it is important for young people, particularly as they are coming towards the end of school, university and TAFE year, that they understand there are great opportunities here in Melbourne and Victoria,” Dr Napthine said.

The Premier would not say how much the advertisements were costing or if they were an appropriate use of taxpayers’ funds.

“Victorians need to understand there are great growth opportunities in Victoria, great growth in job opportunities,” he said.

He also defended the practice of putting Liberal and National candidates’ comments on official government press releases. Dr Napthine said Labor did the same with its “taxpayer-funded” budget.

Labor’s scrutiny of government spokesman Martin Pakula said it was clear that Dr Napthine was using taxpayer dollars to fund a blatantly political advertising campaign.

“Denis Napthine is playing Victorians for mugs and proving, beyond any doubt, that the only job he’s interested in is his own,” Mr Pakula said.

All government advertising ceases when the government moves into caretaker mode on November 5.

On Wednesday commuters at Frankston train station were given free coffee and toy trains promoting the upgrades to the train line.

It is not the first time free coffee has been handed out, with commuters at stations along the line that have been subject to works given it as a thank-you gesture

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