FactCheck: does Labor massively outspend the Coalition during election campaigns?

A still from an ALP advertisement. Which party is spending more to get the message across? YouTube

“In every recent election, state and federal, the Labor Party has massively outspent the Coalition and this election is going to be no exception.” - Opposition leader Tony Abbott, press conference, 21 August.

The claim that Labor has “massively outspent” the Coalition in “every recent election” is a clear overstatement and untrue in the case of some key recent elections. But the difficulty of assessing such claims is in itself a lesson about inadequate transparency in Australian politics.

There are no official figures for national election spending. This is a flaw in our disclosure system. Parties and media insiders make educated guesses by monitoring broadcast advertising, but these don’t capture parties’ opinion polling and the “ground-game”.

The Australian has reported that so far in this campaign, capital city residents had been subject to 57% more ads than at the same time during the 2010 election, with a deluge expected in the final fortnight of campaigning. Labor had spent about $1.7 million on 912 TV, radio and newspaper ads, with the Liberals spending $1.5m on 1031 spots. (Note this estimate excludes internet, billboards, direct-mail etc). Coalition spending must also count National Party spending in regional media.

The real revelation, for anyone concerned about political equality, is how utterly dominant the two major parties’ ad blitzes are compared with the minor parties: outspending them 19 to 1, when the vote share is about 4 to 1.

For a broader perspective, we have party revenues for the last three available financial years (three years equates to a federal electoral cycle). According to their declarations, the Liberals received total donations of $198.2 million versus $169.2 million for Labor. Including the Nationals, Labor’s receipts were 75% of the Coalition’s. We won’t have figures relevant to this electoral year until late next year.

State governments also offer up some figures. Queensland recently enacted laws capping election expenditure and requiring disclosure of actual election expenditure. For the 2012 Queensland state election, official returns show the LNP’s expenditure of $7.155 million just shaded the ALP’s $7.118 million. Each party spent less than the maximum permitted.

New South Wales also caps election expenditure, and its parties declare annual expenditures. For the financial year covering the 2011 state election, the ALP reported expenditure of $11.109 million, well under the Liberals’ and Nationals’ combined $14.370 million. Even after filtering out office expenditure and focusing only on advertising and other electoral expenditure, the Coalition outspent Labor by almost $1.6 million, or more than 20%.

Political scientist Iain McMenamin’s research showed that since the ALP became more business-friendly in the Hawke/Keating years, it has been able to hold its own in fund-raising when it is on the verge of power or ensconced in power. Union contributions offset those business donors who give to only the Coalition for ideological or matey reasons. But when Labor is out of office, or sure to lose it, it encounters a significant fundraising disadvantage and returns to depend on union contributions or, in the case of Queensland Labor, on the legacy of its investments.

Prior to the 2007 federal election, the unions’ anti-WorkChoices campaign (see below) cost approximately $30 million, giving Rudd Mark I a big leg-up. But partly inspired by that, businesses have run various multi-million dollar campaigns against Labor policy over the past three years. Witness the campaigns against the mining tax, carbon pricing, pokies reform and cigarette packaging changes.

Remember these ads against the carbon tax?

Of “third-party” or civil society groups that declared over $2 million in “political expenditure” between 2006-7 and 2010-11, five were union groups, six were business entities and two were “progressive” organisations, such as environmental groups and the activist organisation GetUp!.

It is true though, that unions are generally less wary of attacking conservative policy or leaders during an election than business is of attacking Labor. After all, many unions openly affiliate with the ALP, whilst many businesses fear alienating customers.

Union ads have played an important role in past elections, like this anti-Workchoices ad from the 2007 poll.

However, even that cultural difference is sliding. Industry groups are using advertising more aggressively, as the present election period ads attacking Labor on fringe benefit tax rules reveal. That is easily the biggest non-party advertising campaign so far this election period.

Verdict

While there is no comprehensive data available, we can say that Tony Abbott’s bald claim that in every recent election, Labor has outspent the Coalition is false. Abbott’s underlying gripe presumably is that union campaigns invariably boost Labor. But this has been offset in recent years by business campaigns against Labor.

Abbott’s fear that Labor will outspend the Coalition in this election is likely to prove the reverse, just as Rudd’s claim that the Coalition is out-spending Labor “ten-to-one” is spin of the highest level.


Review

TV advertising still accounts for the lion’s share of election spending by the Labor and Liberal parties. Since the High Court overturned legislation banning purchased election advertising in 1992 (Australian Capital Television v Commonwealth), both have spent heavily, mostly on “negative” ads.

Neither broadcasters nor political parties have any obligation to disclose what is spent in what remains a private, commercial transaction between them. As this fact check notes, there are no national figures on election spending.

Parties do receive generous election funding from taxpayers but are not required to report how it is spent, let alone release real-time details of their ad spend. We get just occasional pointers. One such glimpse is provided by research compiled toward the end of the five-week 2010 campaign by Xtreme Info for the Gruen Nation program. It found that the ALP had marginally (not massively) outspent the Coalition in purchasing advertising on free-to-air television. Labor had purchased $14 million worth of air time to the Liberals’ $12.7 million.

In Brisbane, the most intensively targeted market, Labor screened 812 ads, and the LNP 706 spot ads. Australia-wide, the Liberals purchased more airtime with their lesser spend. For more details see Annabel Crabb’s ABC online report from 2010.

The Australian reported last week that the Liberals have chosen to concentrate election advertising in the final two weeks of this campaign. Abbott’s protest that Labor is presently massively outspending the opposition can be seen in this context.

We cannot say with absolute certainty, but it does seem unlikely that across the whole 2013 campaign the ALP will substantially outspend the Liberals. - Ian Ward

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.Request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.