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Almost $1 billion of taxpayer money spent on government advertising

Victorians spent almost $1 billion dollars on government advertising over nine years – including the cost of spruiking unfunded promises and infrastructure projects that were never built.

And despite Labor promising to ban taxpayer-funded party-political advertising, hefty sums are still being spent on other forms of promotional material, including information campaigns, recruitment drives, and ads talking up the Andrews government's pet policies.

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The Andrews government is spending big to spruik its level crossing program.

The Andrews government is spending big to spruik its level crossing program. Photo: Paul Rovere

According to the latest department data, about $900 million has been spent on advertising since 2008, on everything from Coalition proposals that never got off the ground – such as the East West Link and the Melbourne Airport rail connection – to the unfunded transport plan that Labor took to the 2010 election.

But the good news is that annual expenditure has decreased substantially over that period, from a record of high of $130 million in the final year of the Brumby Labor government in 2009-10, to about $75 million in the 2015-16 financial year under Premier Daniel Andrews. Based on the latest available estimates, the government has spent under $300 million since coming to office.

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The figures come as Parliament's upper house prepares to vote on new laws that will put the government's promised ban on party-political ads into effect and gives the Auditor-General clearer standards for assessing whether advertising is "in the public interest".

Nonetheless the issue is likely to prove contentious ahead of next year's state election, with the government widely expected to ramp up the way it sells its achievements to voters.
Fresh questions emerged this week, when Fairfax Media revealed that more than $20 million over seven years would be spent spruiking Labor's level crossings program – a project that has caused a backlash in some communities in Labor's most marginal seats.

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While the government insists the spending is necessary to keep the public informed about how they would be affected, the opposition said it was yet another example of taxpayer funds being used for spin.

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"Daniel Andrews should put this money towards avoiding catastrophic [train] network failures like we saw on Thursday instead of more propaganda," said Liberal parliamentary secretary Tim Smith.

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Under Daniel Andrews the government has spent about $300m on advertising.

Under Daniel Andrews the government has spent about $300m on advertising.

Fairfax Media can also report:

  • Advertising expenditure for the 2016-17 financial year has not been released, however the Department of Premier and Cabinet says it "is expected to be consistent" with last year's costs, which amounted to $74.9 million.
  • The government's latest advertising plan identifies family violence, summer safety, the Metro Rail Project and the level crossings program as key priorities for future ad spending.
  • The majority of annual advertising (80 per cent) goes into what the government department and agencies describe as "campaign expenditure" which is designed to "inform, educate, motivate or change behaviour".
  • Last year, the Transport Accident Commission was the biggest spending agency in terms of campaign ads ($16.8 million), followed by WorkSafe Victoria ($6.7 million), the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation ($5.7 million) and the Department of Justice and Regulation ($4.9 million).

Taxpayer-funded advertising has long been a sensitive issue for governments, with a damning Auditor-General's report previously finding that Victorians were generally kept in the dark about the true cost of advertising, because "public reporting is partial and inaccurate".

This week, a government spokesman said: "We are delivering on our promise to return integrity to government advertising, by strengthening oversight and introducing legislation to ban political advertising. Unlike the Liberals, we won't waste public money on political advertising for shonky or imaginary projects."

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