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'Thinly disguised political research' fed into Morrison government's pandemic ads

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Officials from the Department of Finance have acknowledged that taxpayer-funded research undertaken by Jim Reed, a long-term researcher for the Liberal party pollster Crosby Textor, fed into two publicly funded advertising campaigns relating to economic measures launched in response to the pandemic.

But officials told the estimates committee they were unable to quantify or disclose the budgets for the two taxpayer-funded advertising spends.

Reed, who now runs his own agency, Resolve Strategic, was awarded a contract by limited tender in April, valued at $541,750, to undertake market research related to Covid-19 for the prime minister’s department. Reed has another substantial market research project with Treasury, with the value of that contract upgraded to $554,675.

The market research contracts were executed by the public service, but officials from Scott Morrison’s department confirmed earlier in the week the results of Reed’s taxpayer-funded tracking surveys and research were also shared with the prime minister’s office.

Related: 'Thinly disguised political research' paid for by taxpayers shared with Morrison's office

While the content of the substantial research project is unknown because it has not been released publicly, or to any committee scrutinising the government’s management of the pandemic, Labor has raised the alarm about “thinly disguised political research” being funded by taxpayers rather than by the Liberal party, as would be the convention.

The shadow finance minister, Katy Gallagher, said after the revelations from finance officials on Thursday night: “It is completely unacceptable that in a time of crisis and hardship the prime minister spends $1m of public money to hire his preferred pollster to help him put together a government-funded advertising campaign – the cost which is still unknown.”

She said this indicated Morrison always “prioritised his political interest over the public interest”.

Labor attempted on Thursday to ascertain how Reed’s market research had been used by the government. Finance officials initially attempted to direct the questions to Treasury, but in the end supplied some information about the connection between the research and the as-yet unquantified advertising spend.

Stein Helgeby, deputy secretary of governance and resource management, told the hearing Reed’s research had fed into two government advertising campaigns – one covering the government’s economic response to the pandemic and the second the economic recovery measures.

“Resolve did undertake work for the economic response campaign – the campaign that has now concluded, it was one input to that,” Helgeby said. He said that work “also fed into” the work on the second economic recovery campaign.

Helgeby said the government panel that assesses taxpayer advertising saw Reed’s work on 30 September, but he said he wasn’t able to quantify the value of advertising spend.

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The Labor senator Tim Ayres asked whether there was “a blank cheque for this self-promotion exercise?”

“I don’t have a number,” Helgeby said. “That is quite a different thing from there being an open-ended ability to undertake spending. You can only know the full cost of a campaign once it has started, once it has run, and once it has concluded.”

Ayres said: “I think people are pretty sick of this stuff – vast expenditure to tell people about the government’s achievements.” He asked how many jobs the advertising campaign would create. Directing his rebuke to the minister at the table, Zed Seselja, Ayres said: “You know the answer is none, apart from people in advertising agencies.”

With the Morrison government facing questions this week about integrity issues, the prime minister was asked in question time on Thursday to reflect on the propriety of taxpayer-funded research “by an ex-Liberal party pollster” being shared with his office.

Morrison brushed off the question, saying the government’s record of managing the economic shock associated with the coronavirus was positive.

“I can confirm that the government has provided lower taxes, that we are supporting business, that we are supporting Australians to get back to work,” the prime minister said.