Australia Proposes a Ban on Broadcast Political Advertising

IN a controversial move, Prime Minister Bob Hawke is proposing to ban all political advertisements on television or radio. The ban would include third parties, such as business groups and environmentalists, who take sides on political issues. In announcing the move last week, the Labor government claimed the ad ban is essential to prevent "corruption" as political parties scramble to raise money to buy air time.

"Clearly a situation has arisen in the United States where large lobby groups are outright buying support for their particular interests," says Sen. Nick Bolkus, the minister for administrative services. Senator Bolkus is unable to name an instance of similar corruption in Australian federal elections.

The opposition Australian Liberal Party maintains the move reflects Labor's paucity of cash.

"The Labor Party is heavily in debt from the last election and knows, with its present low level of support from business and the community, that it will not have enough money to fight the next," says John Hewson, leader of the Liberal opposition.

The proposed legislation follows a study by a parliamentary committee, which reported that spending on broadcast advertising rose 109 percent between the 1984 and 1987 elections. At the same time, public campaign funding rose 32 percent. Bolkus estimates Labor and the opposition each spent about A$10 million (US$7.7 million) on broadcast advertising during the last election in 1990. Third-party broadcast advertising was about A$5 million.

The proposed legislation comes at a time when the Labor Party is at a low point in the opinion polls. The latest Morgan Gallup Poll, released last week in the weekly Bulletin shows that only 35 percent of the voters back the Labor Party; 48 percent support the Liberal-National Party coalition.

Francis Castles, professor of public policy at the Australian National University, calls the Labor move a "neat trick, mostly done for political advantage." He adds that if the Liberals had the chance, they would do the same thing.

Opponents of the legislation, including the broadcasters, attacked it as an infringement on freedom of speech. However, Bolkus replied, "There is absolutely nothing 'free' about broadcast advertising." According to the study, only Canada, the US, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia allow paid political advertising.

Now with the legislation pending, Mr. Hewson says, the Labor Party is now gearing up for a "massive direct mail blitz in marginal electorates as their only hope of staving off certain defeat."

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