Experts have renewed calls for real-time donations and expenditure reporting for political parties after Google’s latest transparency report revealed that mining billionaire Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party political ad spending dwarfed that of other parties.
According to the report, total political ad spend on Google’s platforms across Australia totalled more than $1.5 million in the 11 months between November 2020 and October 2021, of which $1.2 million was spent by the United Australia Party.
The federal Labor Party was the second-biggest spender, paying out $53,850, followed by The Greens in Western Australia, the United Workers Union, and the Liberal Party in WA, who each spent just over $40,000 on Google ads.
Dr Peter Chen, a senior lecturer of media politics, public policy and Australian politics at the University of Sydney, said the report provides another reminder of the need for greater ad spending disclosure requirements. But, he said, such regulation is unlikely to happen any time soon.
“I’ve advocated, for a long time, for real-time donation and expenditure reporting,” Dr Chen said. “It’s completely technically possible, and the only reason why it’s not done, is because the incumbents [don’t want to].”
As it stands, all federally registered political parties, along with their non-registered state and territory branches, are required by the Australian Electoral Commission to lodge financial disclosure returns every year.
Dr Chen said that it could be a while before real-time disclosure requirements are seen in Australia, if at all, because incumbent parties may at some point want to spend that kind of money themselves.
“To some extent, everyone wants to keep [their] powder dry … because you might want to regulate that expenditure, but maybe, one day, you’ll have a lot of money to spend,” he said.
Others say that offloading regulatory powers and transparency expectations to the platforms that are profiting off the ads offers other causes for concern.
Ariel Bogle, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Centre, said it’s “a little odd” that platforms with historically contentious self-governance issues have been tasked with policing political ad spending.
“Once again, we are leaving it in the hands of companies who have their own sets of policies and reasons for acting how they do around political advertising,” Bogle said. “We’re relying on the companies that are making money from our elections to police our election advertising.”
“Obviously, Google has acted on ads from the United Australia Party and Facebook has shown a willingness to act on some of Craig Kelly’s rhetoric,” she said. “But, in general, I would imagine there would be a reluctance to remove the ability of a party to advertise.”
Transparency shortfalls from both Google and Facebook have made it difficult for experts to extract any sort of meaningful insight from the limited data they do make available, as the platforms continue to publish vague metrics.
Within the report, Google cites one UAP ad that ran on YouTube, titled “Stop the lockdowns. Together, we can take our country back” that attracted between 1 million and 10 million impressions at a cost of between $1,500 and $50,000.
The same ad ran again just days later, over an 11 day period, and attracted “over 10 million” views, at a cost of “over $100,000”, according to Google.
Bogle said that getting any sort of insight into the impact of the UAP’s spending is another question entirely.
“It’s kind of complex,” she said. “It’s not easy to understand, like the correlation between what Google calls impressions, and actually learning how many people are truly seeing the ads or even watching them.”
This new report reveals only the latest in a years-long spree of digital ad spending for the UAP, who in 2019 were found to have owed more than $8 million of the $9 million debt to Google by all Australian political parties.
Bogle reported at the time that the amounts were likely to represent only a small portion of what political parties spent on digital advertising in the previous year, and that any bills paid to Google or other tech companies before June 30 weren’t reported.