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The Spin You're Paying For

Government's ad spending doubles. And other BC budget notes.

By Will McMartin 23 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Rookie finance minister Carole Taylor introduced her first full-year budget on February 21. Here are a few items that may have escaped public attention.

Jacking up ad spending

British Columbians will see a lot more government advertising during the coming fiscal year - twice as much, actually - thanks to Finance Minister Carole Taylor's decision to double Victoria's 2006-07 communications expenditures over the previous year.

In 2002-03, when the BC Liberal party enjoyed a huge 77-2 legislative advantage over the opposition New Democrats, the government's advertising budget was a modest $11.6 million. In 2003-04, that figure inched up to $19.7 million, and then in 2004-05 dropped to a mere $12.1 million. Last year, fiscal 2005-06, advertising expenditures were pegged at just $14.0 million.

Now, after last May's general election saw the BC Liberals' legislative majority cut to a much-tighter 46 seats to the NDP's 33, Taylor has decided that the government's advertising expenditures should be jacked up to a whopping $28.1 million. That's more than 100 percent higher than last year's allocation.

Pricey spin campaigns

Readers will recall that the BC Liberal government went dramatically over-budget in 2004-05, as Victoria's pre-election advertising expenditures totaled $18,994,161. That figure was well in excess of the budgeted $12.1 million.

By sheer coincidence, four of the government's most costly advertising initiatives were under "The Best Place on Earth" (TBPOE) initiative and produced by the same agency that, during the election campaign, unveiled similarly-themed general election ads for the BC Liberal party.

(The four TBPOE expenditures were $4.4 million for tourism promotion; $3.8 million for the "Best Place to Work" series; $3.2 million for "Invest Here"; and another $2.5 million for "Achieve B.C.: New Student Spaces." In total, the pre-election advertising blitz cost B.C. taxpayers more than $13.9 million.)

The corollary to this partisan misuse of taxpayer funds was that despite drastically exceeding the government's advertising budget, neither Premier Gordon Campbell nor any of his cabinet ministers suffered the embarrassment or financial cost of losing part of their salary as required under the much-touted Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act.

That's because the Public Affairs Bureau (PAB), the government agency responsible for all government communications, quietly sent some of the invoices for costly ad campaigns to various line ministries.

The "Invest Here" invoice ($3.2 million), for example, was paid by the Ministry of Small Business and Economic Development. Most of the "Achieve B.C." bill ($2.4 million) was paid by the Ministry of Advanced Education. Payment for Forest Fire Prevention advertising ($1.3 million) was taken out of the forests ministry's budget. And the West Nile campaign ($634,000) was assumed by the health department.

At the end of the fiscal year, the Public Affairs Bureau - then operating under the purview of the premier's office; now it's part of Taylor's bailiwick - was able to claim that it had come in under budget, and Campbell and his cabinet colleagues received their entire ministerial compensation.

Ministers of advertising

Interestingly, Taylor not only has doubled the government's over-all communications budget, she has restored considerable authority for advertising and promotion to various cabinet ministers and their departments.

In 2001, the newly-elected Campbell government centralized Victoria's communications in the Public Affairs Bureau, an agency initially designed to be 'non-partisan.' Later, after several embarrassing flubs, the BC Liberals reversed course and 'politicized' the staffers working in the government's communications apparatus. All PAB operatives are employed through orders-in-council and serve the government "at pleasure."

Taylor's 2006-07 budget maintains the PAB budget at $13.6 million, but that amount is less than half of the government's overall public relations allocation. The remainder is intended for line ministries.

Leading the way is Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General John Les, who gets to spend $2.33 on advertising. Among Les's responsibilities is the B.C. Coroners Service, which will get an additional $13 million over three years following embarrassing revelations over the government's failure to investigate 713 child death files.

Next, is the embattled Minister of Children and Family Development Stan Hagen, who gets $2.05 million for communications initiatives. It remains to be seen whether that amount can rehabilitate the public image either of the maladroit minister or his battered department following the tragic death of young Sherry Charlie.

Education Minister Shirley Bond and Health Minister George Abbott each receive $2.0 million for communications. Bond's department this year is attempting to facilitate a new collective agreement with the B.C. Teachers' Federation, while Abbott is tackling the Campbell government's intention to study alternative models for public health delivery.

Other big beneficiaries include Minister of Economic Development Colin Hansen, ($1.265 million), Minister of Environment Barry Penner, ($1.06 million), Minister of Tourism Olga Ilich, ($1.015 for tourism and resort development) and Minister of Agriculture and Lands Pat Bell, ($1.0 million for the integrated land management bureau).

Kudos for this tax exemption

Governments have long recognized the need to remove tax barriers to reading and learning. In 1962, for example, W.A.C. Bennett legislated a sales-tax exemption for the purchase of text books used in education.

And so Taylor deserves kudos for her decision to provide a sales-tax exemption for labour charges related to maintenance or modification of software, a measure which should help British Columbians' computer literacy.

The exemption is expected to cost the provincial treasury about $35 million per year in foregone revenue.

BC still a 'have not' province

Does anyone recall the oft-repeated claims from the 2005 general election that British Columbia no longer was a "have-not province"? That assertion was repeated frequently by BC Liberals and their supporters and unquestioningly reported by the province's news media - and especially in editorials endorsing the Campbell government's re-election.

The claim seemed dubious enough at the time; after all, the province had received an eye-popping $979 million equalization transfer from Ottawa in fiscal 2004-05 (the year before the election), and was scheduled to get another $590 million in federal welfare in 2005-06 (the election year).

Still, the BC Liberals' pre-election budget confidently claimed that B.C. expected the equalization transfers would end in fiscal 2006-07. In other words, the once-prosperous Pacific province soon was to be restored as a "have" province, all thanks to the wise and beneficent policies of the Campbell Liberals.

But Taylor's 2006-07 budget shows that B.C.'s equalization payments have not ended.

Indeed, she expects to get a sizeable $459 million transfer from Ottawa in the upcoming fiscal year, which means that B.C. will be receiving equalization payments at least until the spring of 2007. That's nearly two years after the Campbell Liberals won election with the claim they got rid of B.C.'s "have-not" designation.

Veteran political consultant and analyst Will McMartin is a regular columnist for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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