“We recommend that government establish a general policy that explicitly prohibits the use of partisan political information in public government communications.” — B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s 2014 report on government advertising.
Not only have the BC Liberals under Premier Christy Clark refused to implement the auditor general’s recommendations to end partisan advertising at public expense, they admit to almost doubling the government advertising budget to $15 million this year in the run up to the May election.
The reasons are as obvious as the astonishing number of ads blanketing your TV screen daily — even during Sunday’s Oscar awards. It’s because those ads say what a great job the BC Liberal government is doing, over and over.
But none of these government TV, radio, print and online ads are urgent or necessary, except those on the fentanyl drug crisis. Ads about the B.C. budget, housing subsidies, training programs or anything else should be stopped until after the May 9 election.
Yet they won’t, because the BC Liberals believe they can get away with spending millions in taxpayer dollars telling the public how wonderful the government is without provoking a backlash that cost them votes. That’s their cynical calculation.
B.C.’s auditor general told the government to stop it three years ago, and to establish clear rules to end partisan ads.
“It is a generally agreed upon principle that government should not use its position of influence or public funds and resources to support an electoral campaign,” the 2014 report said. “Government spends public money to inform taxpayers about its programs, but citizens should not pay for communications that are of a partisan political nature.”
It added that the government should “provide specific guidelines which set out criteria as to information that should or should not be included in public government communications” and then “ensure that the policy and guidance to be established is adhered.”
While Clark has ignored the auditor general and the B.C. New Democrats, who proposed legislation in 2016 to have the auditor general vet and block partisan pre-election government ads, another BC Liberal premier surprisingly didn’t.
Then-premier Gordon Campbell issued a directive in December 2008 that stopped all “non-essential advertising” from Jan. 12, 2009, until the May 13 election.
“Non-essential advertising includes any promotional or informational activity conducted by a provincial ministry, authority or agency that is not required for statutory, emergency, health and safety or the proper function of government operations,” wrote Ron Norman, associate deputy minister of the Public Affairs Bureau, in a memorandum to all deputy ministers.
Norman pointed out that examples of required advertising “include recruitment of foster parents, notification of service changes, public meetings and traffic pattern changes.”
Other jurisdictions also have clear government advertising guidelines, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
The private members’ bill introduced last May by New Democrat MLA Gary Holman would have had the auditor general approve government ads to avoid partisan bias.
“If previous experience is any indication, this taxpayer-funded advertising will be ramped up as the election approaches,” Holman said in the legislature. “In combination with this government’s recent elimination of pre-election spending limits on political parties and the refusal of the premier to ban corporate and union political donations, partisan-tainted government advertising exacerbates the undue influence of big money on our political process.”
Holman’s proposed Government Advertising Act would “prevent any provincial government from using public dollars to promote its own political interests” and give the auditor general the final say on whether an ad was appropriate to run or not.
B.C.’s auditor general has called for legislation to fix the problem as long ago as 1996, while the NDP also introduced a similar private member’s bill to regulate government ads back in 2013 — as the BC Liberal government spent $68 million over two years on advertising that was also seen as partisan.
Ontario introduced strong rules against improper government ads in 2004, giving that province’s auditor general the power to approve them and reject inappropriate or partisan ads.
But Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne gutted the legislation in 2015, leading Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk to complain late last year that the changes left her office as little more than a “rubber stamp” by removing its right to reject partisan government ads.
“We cautioned when the government changed the law in 2015 that it was opening the door to this sort of thing,” Lysyk said. “Sure enough, the government walked right through that open door.”
Ironically, many B.C. government ads are titled “Our Opportunity is Here” — but the biggest opportunity of all actually belongs to the BC Liberals, because they get to advertise themselves with millions of your dollars.