Australia May Ban Political Ads on Television

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE high costs of politicking in the age of electronic media have Australia considering a ban on political ads on television and radio. Prime Minister Bob Hawke's Australian Labor Party (ALP) is spearheading the move. The opposition coalition objects to the prohibition proposal. But all parties are concerned about escalating campaign costs.

``Television advertising is phenomenally expensive. Something needs to be done,'' says Sen. Jean Jenkins, deputy leader of the Australian Democrats.

On a per capita basis, the two largest Australian parties spent roughly twice as much on broadcast advertising in this year's federal election as the two major United States parties spent in the 1988 presidential election.

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The ALP spent about US$5.5 million on television ads to secure its March 24 election victory - almost twice the figure in 1987. Public funding, begun in 1984, covers a portion of the tab. But campaign costs are escalating faster than a tight federal budget can respond.

ALP National Secretary Bob Hogg worries that the democratic process may be corrupted as politicians come to rely increasingly on donations from special-interest groups.

``Look at the PACs [political action committees] in the US. We don't want the same thing to happen here,'' Mr. Hogg says. ``We've reluctantly reached the conclusion the only simple, even-handed solution is to prohibit all political [broadcast] advertising.''

Hogg notes many countries in Europe, including France, ban paid political advertising. But they also provide ``free'' air time.

The conservative Liberal Party isn't particularly enamored with either solution. Nor are the television and advertising industries. Television executives say they are in no position to give free time to politicians. Ad costs have only kept pace with inflation, they argue. There's also the problem of how to allocate the time.

The government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation allocates time based on the percentage of votes won by parties during the previous election. So the major parties get the biggest chunks of time.

Extending the same allocation standard to commercial broadcasters would deny access to any parties emerging between the elections.

``That's hardly equitable or an improvement of the democratic process,'' says Dean Jaensch, political scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Critics add that bans impinge on free speech.

``The solution is terribly simple,'' says Bruce Cormack, director of Advertising Federation of Australia. ``Political parties have to decide on an affordable campaign and budget accordingly. If they can't afford television, use less of it.''

In theory, that might work if not for the ``Canberra-or-bust factor.'' If the ALP is running a blitz of television ads that seems to be influencing voters, the Liberals may feel compelled to respond, regardless of budgeted spending limits.

Critics of the broadcasting-ban proposal argue that campaign costs wouldn't necessarily decline. The money would be transferred to billboards, print advertising, or direct mail ads.

Hogg disagrees. ``There's a limit to how much direct mail you can hit people with,'' he says.

Last year, solutions were submitted by a joint parliamentary committee. The report was entitled, ``Who pays the piper calls the tune,'' but was set aside as the 1989-90 campaign began.

One option is to put a ceiling on paid political advertising by each party or candidate. But Hogg points out the US provided limited public funds for political candidates only to find PACs funding ``independent'' advertisements for parties or candidates.

Still, a cap that applies to both public and privately funded broadcast advertising might alleviate the PAC loophole, suggests Fedor Mediansky, professor of political science at the University of New South Wales.

The Australian Democrats, a minority party, hold the balance of power in the Senate. The party opposes the ban.

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