After committing more than $200m to advertising in the last year, the federal government has moved to change regulations which would free taxpayer-funded electoral allowances to be used in radio and television advertisements.
The government says the changes will ensure “all communities across Australia get the same opportunity to receive information from their federal member” and put Australian media “on a level playing field”.
The parliamentary business resources amendment put forward by the special minister of state, Alex Hawke, would repeal the section which bans office expenses being used to pay for “production or placement of content for broadcasting on television or radio”.
The current budgeted office expenses allow for just under $110,000 for every senator and more than $136,647 for every lower house MP.
But with an election due within three months and many MPs in close contests complaining of tight budgets, freeing the electoral office allowance for broadcast use is being viewed as a potential boon.
Labor says the regulation changes, which do not have to be legislated, will amount to an additional $22m of taxpayer funds being made available for political advertising, on top of the $200m the government has committed to advertising campaigns since January last year.
“It wants to give members of parliament the ability to spend taxpayer dollars running political ads in their electorates. This is just outrage piled on outrage.”
Labor has vowed to challenge the changes, but with just one sitting of parliament scheduled before the likely election date, it is running out of time.
“If we can’t stop it through the parliament, we will make people pay back the money,” Plibersek said. “Members of parliament should not be using taxpayer funds to run political ads, full stop.”
Hawke accused Labor of “opposing the rights of disadvantaged communities”.
“Labor is a party that lectures us about multinationals, but are opposing changes that take expenditure away from social media giants like Facebook and put it into local Aussie communities,” he said in a statement.
“Labor is a party that lectures us on climate change action, but are opposing changes that will reduce the amount of printing done by parliamentarians.
“By fighting overdue modernisation of the system, Labor have shown that they don’t understand rural and regional Australia and they don’t care about local economies.”
Last month, documents revealed the government planned to spend $36m before the May federal election advertising its infrastructure spending and income tax package plan.
Scott Morrison, who criticised Labor for its advertising spend in 2013, said last month he believed it was “entirely appropriate for Australians to understand what their government is doing”.
The then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull oversaw one of the biggest overhauls of electoral spending in 2017.
In the Senate, Cory Bernardi raised the alarm that attempts were being made to amend public funding reforms the government passed last year, which limited public reimbursement for election campaigns to amounts that were actually spent.
Previously, any party or independent candidate that received more than 4% of the first preference vote received $2.73 per vote, a system which delivered One Nation $1.7m in taxpayer funds after the 2016 election.
Bernardi said this month there was a push to reverse the changes.
“Since then there has been a serious agitation across [the ] crossbench by staff members of MPs to have these changes reversed and whilst publicly many will say last year’s decision was a good one, they are advocating behind the scenes for windfall profits,” Bernardi said last week.
“It is absolutely wrong they have taken the case strongly to government. I will do everything I can to stop the change.”