$1.1m of public money used to fund Liberal-linked market research sent to PM’s office

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A second major taxpayer-funded market research project about community attitudes to Covid-19 undertaken by Jim Reed, a long-term researcher for the Liberal party pollster Crosby Textor, has been handed to both the prime minister and the treasurer’s political offices.

Officials from the Treasury on Monday confirmed during a Senate estimates hearing the market research, valued at more than $500,000, had informed a $15m taxpayer-funded advertising campaign about economic recovery, and the underlying research reports had been emailed to Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg’s offices.

Last week, officials confirmed a separate trove of market research about the coronavirus undertaken by Resolve Strategic, Reed’s current firm, under a contract worth $541,750, had also gone to the prime minister’s office – prompting Labor to raise the alarm about “thinly disguised political research” being funded by Australian taxpayers rather than by the Liberal party, as would be the convention.

The two Resolve Strategic contracts, valued at more than $1m, were executed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury and were let by limited tender.

On Monday, Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, noted the evidence given to estimates was “long-term Liberal mate and former Crosby Textor pollster Jim Reed received more than $1m in government contracts at the behest of the prime minister’s department”.

Marles asked: “Why does the prime minister treat taxpayers’ money as his own?”

Morrison brushed off the question, telling parliament: “All these arrangements are done by the department … through the appropriate processes.”

Treasury officials told Monday’s estimates hearing the market research was “not political” and that all major government advertising campaigns were required to be accompanied by market research.

Resolve Strategic was engaged first by Morrison’s department, and then by Treasury, on recommendation from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to conduct research about community and business attitudes to the pandemic and the government’s response.

Shannon Kenna, a Treasury communications division head, told estimates Reed was engaged by limited tender “due to the urgency of the situation”. She added: “We didn’t actually have time to look more widely.”

The Labor senator Katy Gallagher asked officials why the Resolve Strategic contract had increased in value over its four-month duration. She noted the Treasury contract had been increased four times in increments of around $50,000.

Kenna told the hearing those increments paid for focus groups to test the ads for Treasury’s $15m “Our Comeback” campaign. She said the advertising agency TBWA Melbourne had suggested the “Our Comeback” tagline.

She said the Resolve Strategic contribution included running 16 virtual focus groups and online surveys of 7,000 randomly selected participants. Reed’s firm had also conducted 30 “in-depth” interviews with businesses about the efficacy of the government’s measures.

Kenna confirmed the market research reports had been sent to the two political offices, although she was unclear about the specifics.

Gallagher asked the Treasury officials whether the committee could be given access to the taxpayer-funded market research and surveys. The department took the question on notice.

Gallagher noted Treasury had given undertakings to the government advertising committee that the “Our Comeback” advertising campaign would not use political slogans.

Kenna said the department had “reassured [the committee] as part of the discussions that it wouldn’t be happening”. The Treasury officials suggested those kinds of conversations were not unusual.

After the hearing, Gallagher took to social media to criticise the awarding of the contracts. “It seems you can’t take the ad-man out of the PM – $1.1m spent on polling and focus groups which turns into a $15m ad campaign.

“With so many demands on public funds, why is advertising and polling the priority?”

Officials said the contract had now concluded.