Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"We are spending $4.1 million advertising the changes to WorkChoices, but we won't tell you exactly what they are."

So concerned is the government that we know about the latest changes to its workplace rules that it is spending an unprecedented $585,000 a day to tell us. The figure - $4.1 million in advertising spending over the seven days of this week – does not include the associated market research, public relations or the making of the ads.

Asked yesterday whether the $4.1 million blitz was justified, the Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey replied: “In a $1 trillion economy? Absolutely”.

He said the workplace infoline was receiving an extra 1,000 phone calls a day as a result of the ads. The figure suggests that each call has cost the government $585 to bring about.

At a Senate estimates hearing Labor’s John Faulkner asked the Finance Minister Senator Minchin whether the campaign would cost the taxpayer $28,472 an hour, $475 each minute.

The Minister replied, “I am pleased that you know how to use a calculator, Senator.”
Senator Minchin said the spending was worthwhile because “workplace relations affects every single Australian and they are entitled to know the changes in the law”...

Mr Hockey said he had a responsibility to tell people about the changes just as “the NSW government has a responsibility to tell people about changes in road rules and urging people not to speed”.

But the Minister has not yet changed the workplace law and has not yet introduced his proposed changes into parliament.

The changes were unveiled to Coalition backbenchers yesterday and will be introduced on Monday. Last night a spokesman for the Minister was unable to reveal the detail of what was in them. In particular he said he could not reveal whether the $75,000 cut-off for the new fairness test would be a base or complete salary.

Under questioning in the estimates committee, an official from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Robert McMahon revealed that a total of $111 million had been spent on government advertising campaigns so far this financial year, a figure that he said did not include $472,000 spent on a weekend of full-page newspaper ads outlining the proposed workplace changes at the start of May.

He said those advertisements, headed “A Stronger Safety Net for Working Australians” were “non-campaign advertising”.

The department’s website defines non-campaign advertising as “simple, no-frills advertising that generally appears only once or twice and contains factual statements not intended to promote or advise on policies or programs of the government”.

It says newspaper non-campaign advertising is generally limited to staff recruitment and public notices and usually appears as a classified or small display advertisement with no illustration other than a logo or basic line drawing.

The “Stronger Safety Net” advertisements that appeared in newspapers including the Canberra Times over the weekend of May 5 and 6 covered an entire page and included photographs. In an apparent exception to the usual practice outlined by the department they discuss government policy stating among other things that “it was never the intention that it should become the norm for penalty rates and other conditions to be traded off without proper compensation.”

Mr McMahon said his team within the Prime Minister’s Department prepared had the advertisements within hours of the Prime Minister announcing his proposed changes to workplace laws on a Friday. They appeared in every major newspaper the next day.
The advertisements were the first to include no mention of the government’s previous name for its workplace laws: WorkChoices.

Asked whether he or his fellow officers had received any instruction to exclude that word he replied “I can’t remember, Senator.”