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Watchdog Group Wants Audit of Taxpayer-Funded Ads

'It's false advertising,' says Democracy Watch.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 28 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

An independent government watchdog group has called on Canada's auditor general to review taxpayer-funded spending on government advertising. Democracy Watch has also launched a letter-writing campaign through its website, demanding the office look at what it describes as "questionable" ad initiatives in the past.

The group's co-founder, Duff Conacher, said the federal government is spending public money on ads that mislead or advertise for initiatives that don't exist.

Government ads can be seen on TV, radio, billboards and the Internet and are paid for by taxpayers' dollars. There's currently no oversight to make sure money isn't spent on partisan ads, though in the past, citizens have complained to Advertising Standards Canada about government ads they felt were misleading.

For example, the government's current ad blitz will cost $13.5 million for April and May, according to a Canadian Press story on Monday.

Those ads highlight measures in the federal budget, which was introduced last week, but hasn't been passed by Parliament.

"The ads are being done, the measures have not been passed, they don't exist. Therefore it's false advertising," Conacher said. "They may never be implemented if the budget bill does not pass before the fall election."

Conacher wants the auditor general to do a quick audit of the current government ad campaign, which promotes its budget plans, such as tax programs for families. Democracy Watch also wants an audit of another government ad campaign from last fall that advertised tax relief measures.

After that, he said, he's calling for a comprehensive audit of all advertising going back to 2006.

Political not informative

He said previous ads campaigns, such as one claiming the government treats military veterans well, and another that caused a scandal in 2013 advertising a training grant program that didn't exist, were political in nature. They did not help to inform Canadians about services available to them.

Democracy Watch is also calling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to stop the ads now and for government to install a mechanism allowing the auditor general to stop future "dishonest, partisan, wasteful" ads.

"It's extremely important in terms of electoral fairness because it's only the ruling party that can use the public's tax money for advertising," he said. "So it gives them an advantage over opposition parties."

Conacher's demands come days after the Liberal Party of Canada launched a new ad campaign drawing attention to what it says is $750 million worth of government advertising since Harper took office.

In 2013, David McGuinty, Liberal MP for Ottawa South, tabled a private members bill, which would see the creation of an advertising commissioner reporting to the auditor general to oversee government advertising. That bill has not passed.

The legislation is similar to a law his brother Dalton McGuinty brought to Ontario in 2004 when he was premier.

However, on Monday in the House of Commons, the Liberals tabled a motion that if passed would send all advertising through a third-party to vet before it's released to ensure it's a "prudent" use of government funds.

McGuinty said that would put a stop to what he described as a form of backdoor election spending. For example, he said there are 9,800 billboards across Canada promoting the country's Economic Action Plan, a job creation plan. Those billboards cost $29 million and "advertise nothing," he said.

Brand promotion?

"Mr. Harper is cheating," McGuinty said. "It's taking public money to try and promote your brand and enhance your chances for electoral success in October."

He said he has written numerous times to the Conservative government suggesting they put the measure for an advertising commissioner in the budget, but has never received a response.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada said it receives many requests for audits on government advertising from a variety of people and organizations each year.

"The ultimate decision about what to audit rests with the auditor general," said media relations manager Ghislain Desjardins in an email. "Final decisions about what to audit are made in light of the OAG's mandate, the significance of the issue, the existing audit schedule, and available resources."

The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment on the demand for an audit by The Tyee's deadline Monday.

As of 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Democracy Watch's website said it had already had 625 messages sent to the auditor general.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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