Public Administration Amendment (Public Sector Communication Standards) Bill 2016


Debate resumed from 13 September 2016; motion of Ms PULFORD (Minister for Agriculture).

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) — I am pleased to rise this afternoon to make some remarks on the Public Administration Amendment (Public Sector Communication Standards) Bill 2016. This is a piece of legislation which is largely window-dressing. It is a bill which was first brought to the Parliament in April last year. It arrived in the Council I think in May last year, and it has been on the notice paper for a bit over a year now. It is heading into its second year on the government's list of bills — the 21 bills that we have to work through over the course of the rest of this Parliament — and that list is growing.

It is interesting that the government has chosen to bring this bill forward this week, a week in which it has flagged its intention to probably sit on Friday to get through some of its backlog of legislation. The fact that this bill is now coming forward as a priority after sitting on the notice paper for about 14 months is of interest.

The coalition does not oppose this legislation. We very much regard it, as I said, as window-dressing. The bill is a brief bill. It is all of seven pages and seven clauses, including the repeal clause. The bill seeks to insert into the Public Administration Act 2000 a new part 5A in relation to communication and advertising by public sector bodies. The bill sets out as part of proposed part 5A new objects, which are:

The objects of this Part are —

(a) to establish standards to ensure that public sector communication is in the public interest; and

(b) to ensure that public sector communication is not party political; and

(c) to provide for specific standards for public sector communication advertised on television.

The bill sets out the purpose for publication of public sector communication to be in the public interest and the intent with respect to public sector communications. It goes on to talk about public sector communication standards and specifically refers to public sector entities. The bill relates to public sector bodies, which is the broadest classification of entities under the Public Administration Act, so the intent is that it applies to the broadest definition of public sector entities. It requires at new section 97C that a public sector body undertaking public sector communications must ensure that the public sector communication:

(a) is not designed or intended to directly or indirectly influence public sentiment for or against —

(i) a political party; or

(ii) a candidate for election; or

(iii) a member of Parliament; and

(b) is otherwise in accordance with prescribed public sector communication standards (if any).

The bill goes on to create the capacity for prescribed standards by way of regulations after section 112(1) of the principal act. In effect the framework for the bill does not change the way in which the public sector undertakes its communications today.

Our concern is that the bill does not introduce any real reform with respect to what are acceptable standards for advertising undertaken by government. The language in the bill has been chosen very carefully, and I think on reflection that if members of Parliament consider the scope of what is paid political advertising — the things we see on billboards, the things we see on television, radio advertisements et cetera — there would be very few instances of paid communications, paid advertising by government, which engage political parties, which engage the names of candidates for elections or which engage the names of members of Parliament. Most government paid advertising is inevitably about promoting the government. It does not seek to promote the government party. It does not seek to promote government candidates for election. It does not seek to promote government members of Parliament. It seeks to promote the government. The language is typically framed, and we see it in many publications that come out which say, 'The Andrews Labor government', and talk about activities that the government is undertaking.

A current example is the Melbourne Metro advertising campaign. An interesting example of that is the billboard which until recently was running on the rail bridge crossing CityLink at the Melbourne High School overpass, where the railway line crosses from Melbourne High School across the Yarra and across CityLink. For the last month or so there has been a large billboard displayed to traffic on CityLink heading into Melbourne basically just promoting Melbourne Metro. There is Melbourne Metro with a picture of the spaghetti train lines all coming into the loop. There is no message about expecting disruptions or anything like that; it is simply Melbourne Metro and the picture.

It is not a public communications message in the sense of changes to trains, and obviously that is not going to be something that will have an effect for many years. It is not a message about expecting disruption or traffic congestion where the works are taking place in St Kilda Road. It is simply a billboard promoting Melbourne Metro, with the standard graphic that is being used in relation to the project. That raises an interesting question as to what is the purpose of the communication. What is the government trying to do with the communication besides promote the fact that the government is doing the project? Where is the public interest value in putting up a billboard that shows Melbourne Metro but does not link to any information about expecting traffic disruption? It obviously does not link to any information about expecting timetable changes because there are not going to be any. What is the purpose of it? Why is it there, besides the obvious conclusion that it is promoting the government? The construct of the bill does not go to the issue of promoting the government. It goes to the issue of promoting a party, a candidate or a member of Parliament.

The coalition will be proposing two amendments to this bill when it reaches the committee stage, and I ask that they be circulated now.

Opposition amendments circulated by Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) pursuant to standing orders.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — The intention of the coalition's amendments is to amend proposed section 97C of the bill, which refers to communications that should not be designed or intended to directly or indirectly influence public sentiment for a political party, a candidate for election or a member of Parliament, to add a reference to the current government of the state and a reference to the current government of the commonwealth to make it clear that it is not appropriate to use public sector communications to promote the government.

This gets to the issue of what the purpose is of that billboard that we see on the rail bridge over CityLink and what the purpose is, frankly, of so much other communication — paid advertising — that we see the government put forward which does not have a public information purpose and which on the face of it is often related simply to promoting the government and pushing the message that the government is doing something. We believe that if the government is genuine in its intent of reforming public sector communications, it will be accepting of the amendment, which seeks to put it out of scope for public sector communications to influence sentiment for or against the government, be it the state government or the commonwealth government. We believe that it will be a test of the government's commitment and the government's genuine intent with this legislation as to whether it accepts that amendment or not.

The other amendment that we will seek to insert in the bill relates to clause 6, which is the provision for regulations. Clause 6 provides that regulations may be made with respect to prescribing standards for public sector communication and provides in new section 112(1B) that the regulations 'may be disallowed in whole or in part by the Parliament'. This is unusual language — the reference to 'by the Parliament' — because most statutes in Victoria where there is an explicit capacity to disallow regulations say that regulations may be disallowed by a house of the Parliament, so either the other place or this place acting by itself can disallow a regulation or part of a regulation. This bill actually refers to disallowance 'by the Parliament', which raises the question of whether the intent is that both houses must pass a disallowance motion for the disallowance to take effect. The intent of the coalition's second amendment is to change that provision back to the conventional form of disallowance by a house of Parliament to make it very clear that either house acting alone may disallow the regulations.

The other comment I would make is in relation to the regulations themselves. The advice that was obtained from the government some 14 months ago, with the initial briefing, was that the regulations were intended to reflect or endorse the 2014 Victorian government communication guidelines. That remains the coalition's advice. We have not seen any regulations to vary that or vary from that intention to pick up the 2014 guidelines. I see a perhaps quizzical look from the Special Minister of State, who may well provide some elaboration on that when we get into the committee stage.

Mr Jennings interjected.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — Have you provided it?

Mr Jennings interjected.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — I look forward to exploring that matter when we get to the committee. The most recent advice the coalition has is that regulations will be formulated to endorse these 2014 communication guidelines, and I look forward to seeking clarification on that when the house goes into committee.

On the face of it the coalition does not oppose this bill. We see it largely as window-dressing the way it is drafted. The government's genuine intent with this legislation will be tested by the coalition's amendment to expand it to include communication intended to change sentiment in relation to a government as well as communication drafted with political parties and candidates et cetera. We believe the bill does no harm, but it does not advance in its current form the framework on accountability around advertising and communications, and we look forward to exploring those matters in committee in due course.

  • SHARE:
  • Email
  • Permalink