Scott Morrison’s department and his political office have rejected freedom of information requests for access to taxpayer-funded research undertaken by Jim Reed, a long-term researcher for Liberal party pollster Crosby Textor.
Reed, who now runs his own agency, Resolve Strategic, was awarded a $541,750 contract by limited tender in April to undertake market research related to Covid-19 for the prime minister’s department.
Another contract of similar value was awarded to Reed by the Treasury on a recommendation from Morrison’s department. Officials have confirmed the market research has been shared with both the prime minister and treasurer’s offices.
Guardian Australia requested access to the market research and correspondence pertaining to it, but Morrison’s department rejected the application on a number of grounds, including that disclosure would “substantially prejudice the Australia government’s ability and capacity to effectively respond to the most critical issues facing Australia at the current time”.
Labor separately lodged a request with Morrison’s office, seeking Reed’s research reports, and was also rebuffed with similar reasoning.
While the content of the substantial research project is unknown because it has not been released publicly – or to any committee scrutinising the government’s management of the pandemic – Labor has raised the alarm about “thinly disguised political research” being funded by taxpayers rather than by the Liberal party, as would be the convention.
The Treasury told a Senate estimates hearing earlier this year that part of Reed’s work was conducting focus groups to test ads for the department’s $15m “Our Comeback” campaign. Shannon Kenna, a Treasury communications division head, told Senate estimates in October the advertising agency TBWA Melbourne had suggested the “Our Comeback” tagline.
The Morrison government has adopted the “comeback” messaging in its daily political communications with voters, with that talking point now ubiquitous.
The shadow finance minister, Katy Gallagher, said on Monday: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that an FOI seeking transparency and accountability for the spending of public money on an advertising campaign has been rejected by the Morrison government.”
Gallagher argued it was inappropriate that more than $1m of public money had been allocated “to a former Crosby Textor pollster with close Liberal party links”.
“Every dollar spent at the moment is borrowed money – we do not have a spare million to chuck at an old mate so they can come up with a marketing campaign designed to make the Scott Morrison look good,” Gallagher said. “After a year like 2020, Australians deserve better.”
The research contract from Morrison’s department was originally entered into by the national Covid commission (NCC) run by the former Fortescue chief Nev Power when the whole-of-government communications function for the pandemic was managed out of the advisory body.
Part of the reasoning in rejecting Guardian Australia’s FOI request was disclosure could “reasonably be expected to discourage some individuals or organisations in providing assistance or support to the NCC advisory board and the government more generally”.
The NCC advisory board is a group of high-powered business people who initially helped the government manage practical coordination issues during the pandemic, but the group has now morphed into a policy advisory body.
Members of that group have been given “baseline” security clearances so they can have access to confidential cabinet material.
Power has told Senate estimates that commissioners have provided “input” to high-level government decisions, including on the operation of the jobseeker and jobkeeper payments.
He has confirmed the coordination commission made contributions in the lead-up to the October budget. Power has also provided briefings to the national security committee of federal cabinet.
Morrison’s department said in relation to Guardian Australia’s FOI request for the Reed research and accompanying correspondence that “disclosure would, or could reasonably be expected to, restrict the ability of the NCC advisory board to fully engage with, and harness the expertise and resources of, the business and broader Australian community, which would be at odds with the express purpose of the NCC advisory board”.