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Auditor to investigate taxpayer-funded "political" ad campaign

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The Auditor-General says he will inquire into the State Government’s “same day” approval of a $750,000 grant to fund an advertising campaign against the Federal Government in the lead up to last year’s federal election.

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Last week, documents released to the Opposition under Freedom of Information laws showed the Department of Premier and Cabinet took just one day to approve a $757,500 grant to “One Community SA”, to support advertising and community campaigning against Coalition Government education cuts.

The “Learn to Grow” campaign was active at polling stations at the last federal election.

Auditor-General Andrew Richardson told a Budget and Finance Committee meeting this morning that his office would look into whether the campaign was “party political” in nature and whether proper process was followed before the grant was approved.

Opposition frontbencher Rob Lucas told the meeting One Community SA was a “front organisation” for the Labor Party, and had “at least four staff members” with direct connections to Labor.

The organisation’s membership includes several community organisations: Anglicare SA, SACOSS, Uniting Communities and Community Centres SA.

Matt Osborne, a lead organiser of One Community’s campaign, told ABC Adelaide last week he was a convenor of his local ALP branch.

But he said the campaign was not aimed at a political party.

Richardson told the committee meeting this morning that the “use of public money has to have a public interest [associated with it]” and if the purpose of the campaign was “different from the routine of providing public service we’ll certainly want to understand … was that an appropriate use of public funds?”

“We’re going to have a look at it,” he said.

“The issue of having internal government [communications and advertising] guidelines and not having those same guidelines apply elsewhere … [is] the other angle I’ll be pursuing.”

Asked, by Lucas, whether it was unusual that such a large grant be approved on the same day as it was requested – May 6 – Richardson said “we’d be looking to see that there was a process involved before approving that grant”.

“It could reasonably be signed off on the same day if it was … the culmination of negotiations.

“If none of that [prior process] happened … you’d probably find we won’t be too happy about it.”

In 2015, Richardson released a report into the State Government’s “Federal Cuts Hurt” campaign, finding that while its purpose was “political” it was not “party political” because it did not mention political parties by name and was timed outside of a federal election campaign.

Richardson told the committee that he was interested in the contrasting pre-election timing of the “Learn to Grow” campaign.

“That timing … [is] one of the things that I was interested in,” he said.

“We’ll try to take into account all relevant information.”

Richardson said he would have to consider the allocation of the resources of his office before he determines when he’ll be able to complete an inquiry into the campaign – but he said it may be part of his annual report in October.

Anglicare SA CEO Peter Sandeman, also the chairperson of One Community SA, told InDaily last week that the campaign wasn’t an attempt to secure the defeat of the government, but was rather designed to “influence the political debate”.

He said the community sector wanted to support the primary and secondary school principals’ associations in their campaign to have full Gonski funding delivering to South Australia, because it viewed education as a bulwark against poverty.

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