You paid for these ads

Posted on April 29, 2015 in Governance Debates – National Post View
April 28, 2015.   Editorial

To judge by their actions, the federal Conservatives are greatly concerned that some Canadians, somewhere, might be left uninformed about government spending on programs and projects of benefit to them. Call it the precautionary principle: if there is even the slightest possibility they might spend tax dollars on voter-friendly programs and not get credit for it, the Tories appear determined to extinguish it. Government ministers like to talk about their commitment to careful stewardship of public funds, but when it comes to advertising their own good works, the sky’s the limit.

Examples of this propensity to self-promotion on the public dime abound. It became something of a standing joke that placards heralding the “stimulus” program launched in the wake of the 2008 meltdown (the government’s, or the economy’s, take your pick) often went up long before the actual projects being financed. The government spent $52 million advertising its Economic Action Plan in 2009-10 alone, another $21 million in 2011-12, and $14.8 million in 2013 — long after the program had ended. In all, some $100 million was spent between 2009 and 2014, all to ensure voters would not be left even momentarily unaware of the billions of dollars of their money the government was spending on their behalf.

Conservatives argue, straight-faced, that they are simply keeping taxpayers informed, as part of their commitment to openness and transparency, even though a series of polls commissioned by the finance department between 2009 and 2012 — we know of these only because of an access to information request — found many Canadians considered the ads a propaganda exercise and a waste of money. Undeterred, the Conservatives are pouring millions more into promoting the pre-election budget brought down by Finance Minister Joe Oliver a week ago.

Documents show the government has booked a $13.5 million media blitz promoting the budget, even though many of its details were leaked in advance, and were extensively reported in the media before and after the budget. Some were announced publicly as long ago the 2011 election. The TV portion of the campaign will be co-ordinated with the NHL playoffs, when many Canadians are certain to be glued to their sets.

Liberals complain, rightly, that the Conservatives are using tax dollars to promote their own interests, billing the public for partisan political ads that should be funded by the party. “Canadians are understandably upset that Stephen Harper has spent more than $750 million since taking office on wasteful and ineffective partisan advertising,” Liberal MP David McGuinty complained Monday. The New Democrats quickly issued a release noting that the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin spent even more heavily than the Tories, devoting more than $950 million to government advertising between 1998 and 2006.

But so what: just because the Liberals are hypocrites doesn’t make them wrong. Much of the Tory advertising is clearly partisan and self-serving, striving to remind voters that it’s the Conservative government that’s responsible for the tax breaks and programs carefully targeted at families and seniors, both being courted by the government as it seeks re-election in October. What is more, the Grits aren’t just complaining. To their credit, they’ve put forward a solution.

The Liberals are proposing creation of a third-party review process that would appoint an advertising commissioner to weed out partisan messages and ensure messages are “appropriate, proportional, and a prudent use of public funds.” There’s a working model for this: the Government Advertising Act introduced in Ontario in 2004, which gives the province’s Auditor General the authority to approve ads before they are made public. It remains the only such program in Canada. It should be copied everywhere.

If many government expenditures amount to little more than bribing people with their own money, ad campaigns only add insult to injury, devoting millions more to reminding voters of the extent to which they’ve been had. The Mike Duffy trial is offering Canadians daily examples of the tendency of those in power to use the public purse to their own purposes. But Duffy at least had the decency to be furtive about it — not take out billboards bragging of his extravagance, in hopes of corrupting us all.

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