Over the years, the highly competitive nature of Australian politics has seen governments of all persuasions adopt a range of communications practices. Governments have established highly sophisticated public relations machines that have evolved to reflect the increasing demands and complexity of winning and retaining government.
The Australian Press Cuttings Agency (APCA), established in 1904, and later to become Media Monitors Australia, was Australia’s first media monitoring specialist. For the next seven decades, there was a steady growth in the number of media monitoring services in Australia’s major cities.
The election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 saw the emergence of the first genuine public relations machine to service the needs of the incumbent political party. Whereas previous federal governments had operated with a skeleton staff of press secretaries (they were not known as ‘media advisers’ until the 1980s), Whitlam allowed each of his ministers to have their own press secretary. While this provided a mechanism by which ministers could compete with each other for media coverage, it also meant that the government could dominate political debates in the media by both generating commentary and tracking what the opposition was saying out on the hustings. This latter function would also help inform the media advisory role in the 1980s and 1990s.
While the media relations function had been finessed by the Fraser Coalition government (1975–83), through its Government Information Unit (GIU), and at a state level by the Bolte (Victoria) and Wran (NSW) state governments, the Hawke Labor government added a new dimension to the notion of government–media communications with the establishment in 1983–84 of the National Media Liaison Service (NMLS).
The title of this organisation was something of a misnomer—although it was not dissimilar to Gough Whitlam’s Australian Government Liaison Service (AGLS), as a number of commentators have pointed out. Its primary function, which was never publicly conceded, was to monitor Australian media content with a view to providing government MPs with ammunition that they could use against their media monitors Australia political opponents. Journalists quickly dubbed it aNiMaLS, a moniker that suggests a more aggressive function than simple media liaison.
The NMLS was staffed by former journalists in Canberra and in each of the states. Their function was to monitor all media—print, radio and television—across all levels (national, state, regional and community) with a view to responding to comments from opposition MPs and other critics. Armed with the information, they would then draft responses for ministers and backbenchers to use in rebuttal.
The NMLS was a highly successful organisation—so much so that John Howard dismantled it immediately upon winning government in 1996—although it wasn’t long before he had set in place his own organisation, ultimately dubbed ‘baby animals’, or Animals II. Under the Howard Coalition government, responsibility for media monitoring was managed by the Government Members’ Secretariat (GMS). Like the NMLS before it, it operated out of rooms in Parliament House, Canberra, not far from the PM’s offices. And, while it operated separately from the PM’s media advisers, it also appeared to work closely with his advisory team. This practice has continued in the post-Howard era at both the state and federal levels.
While staffers employed by the NMLS had the tedious task of monitoring the various media outlets and then providing a clipping service for their political masters in Canberra, today that function is undertaken electronically by a number of commercial companies, including Media Monitors and AAP Newscentre. All Australian governments subscribe to one or more of these services at significant cost to taxpayers—a point the media regularly highlights.
In seeking to obtain political capital from this, opposition parties regularly seek to score political points by promising to disband the machinery that helps their opponents to stay in office. But as the performance of Howard and others at a federal level, and a number of statebased opposition leaders-turned-premiers has attested, these promises are often hollow.
The reality is that governments will seek to do anything that provides them with an advantage in the communications battle. Spending millions of dollars every year to monitor what their opponents are saying or doing is considered a small price to pay.
REF: S. Young, Government Communication in Australia (2007).