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Audit finds tax-funded Victorian ads political

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was reportedly interviewed by the state's anti-corruption watchdog. Photo: AAP
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Victorian taxpayers footed the bill for two politically motivated advertising campaigns that did not comply with state laws, the state auditor has found.

The Victorian Auditor-General Office report, tabled in state parliament on Wednesday, says the state government’s Our Fair Share (OFS) and Victoria’s Big Build (VBB) campaigns were either fully or partially politicised.

“In our opinion, the campaigns did not fully comply with the 2017 laws. Most OFS and a small number of VBB advertisements were political,” VAGO said.

It said some advertisements could be seen to promote the Victorian government and, specifically in the case of the OFS campaign, criticise the Commonwealth government.

The OFS campaign ran on television, radio, print and digital mediums in the lead-up to and after the 2019 federal election.

It cost $1.7 million, while multi-year VBB ads have cost $11.5 million since February 2018.

One print advert for the OFS campaign read: “The Victorian government believes every student should be fully supported to succeed.

“That’s why we’ve invested $10.8 billion into education for our growing state. But Canberra’s proposed funding deal means Victorian public schools could miss out on $500 million of federal funding every year.”

A television advertisement also included the line “don’t let Canberra short-change our kids”.

The auditor-general says the statements about the Victorian government had a positive tone, compared to a negative tone about ‘Canberra’.

“They used language such as ‘cuts’ and ‘miss out’,” it said.

State government agencies involved in the campaigns denied breaching the Public Administration Act 2004, which was amended in 2017 to ensure government advertising is in the public interest and not party political.

“The conflicting interpretations show the laws are not sufficiently clear. This needs to be remedied,” the VAGO report said.

The agencies behind the OFS campaign – the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Education and Training, Department of Health and Department of Transport – argued they were targeting a political issue, not the current Commonwealth government, and used the term ‘Canberra’ in a broad sense.

The VAGO encouraged the departments to provide evidence the public would have understood ‘Canberra’ referred to the federal parliament, other bodies or the Commonwealth broadly.

“They did not,” it said.

Premier Daniel Andrews said he made no apology for standing up for Victoria when it was not getting its fair share of federal funding.

“The government believes we complied with all rules and acts and wouldn’t hesitate to run that campaign again,” he told reporters.

The Andrews Labor government has repeatedly criticised the federal coalition in recent weeks over GST reforms that purportedly favour Western Australia, and its share of infrastructure spending in the 2022 budget.

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy branded the VAGO findings the most damning report into government advertising in his 16 years in office and said Labor should repay some of the money.

“I don’t see why Victorians should be forced to foot the bill for blatant political advertising that this government palms off as government advertising,” he said.

– AAP