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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Stephen Harper's government is being called out for spending what the Liberals say is $548 million of taxpayers' money for partisan advertising - just prior to the 2015 election. A long ad campaign about a jobs plan that doesn't exist; feel-good ads about Canada's 150th anniversary - still two full years away; a two-month ad campaign ending this month, showcasing tax breaks that can't be accessed until March or April; and $9 million for ads denouncing Canada's wireless cellphone companies. Is there a way to stop governments - of all stripes - from using taxpayers' money for ads to get themselves elected?


John Capobianco:

The question of government advertising and whether or not it is deemed to be electioneering has been debated, discussed and argued for many years and at all levels of government.

Critics will say that the recent ads by the government of Canada are election-style and therefore offside - I say, nonsense!

This is an argument that no government can win - if they don't advertise their programs people will complain that they are never made aware of government programs and if they do, they are campaigning.

Elections Canada states very clearly the rules about advertising during election campaigns - or the writ period - but does not take into account ads that are used in non-election/non-writ period.

Therefore, in my opinion if the ad serves a purpose for Canadians, which means they inform about a service or a program, than we are all better for it.

Marit Stiles:

I don't completely disagree with John... I mean, governments do need to promote their programs and services, to some extent.

But I'm not sure that anyone could really argue that promoting Canada's 150th anniversary, two years in advance - and by spending millions on TV and online ad campaigns - is really in Canadians' best interests. At very least, it's not a program or service that they NEED to know about, or at least not something they need to know about NOW.

Likewise, the Conservatives' decision to run an expensive ad campaign to promote their new tax breaks program (which I must remind everyone will benefit the very wealthiest of Canadians, and not many more) when Canadians can't even take advantage of this break yet, is a bit suspect.

It's classic partisan election preparation being funded by Canadians ... and it absolutely has to be reined in. To say the very least, when a government starts using the same catch phrases from their campaigns in their ads, they've overstepped.

Bernie Farber:

We seem to have some uncommon agreement today. Yes, government has a duty to communicate information about programs and services that can help people in their everyday lives. However, I agree fully with Marit that it's the issue of politically partisan advertising that worries most Canadians.

So for example the Ontario Liberals were the first and only jurisdiction in Canada to enact legislation that bans politically partisan advertising paid for by governments in key media such as newspapers, magazines, billboards, radio, and television.

Sadly though, Marit, the NDP voted against this historic piece of legislation when it was introduced. The current leader of the Third Party was one of the members that voted down increased accountability. Go figure!

John Capobianco:

Unfortunately, Bernie, legislation such as that is usually brought in when there is a problem and serves as cover for the government because they got into trouble.

I know some ads can be viewed as political, but what I am saying is that where do you draw the line when there isn't anything specific which prevents you from those type of ads as long as they are promoting a service or a program - and, yes even a national celebration.

Freedom of speech and the freedom to advertise are paramount rights, but both can be misused to the negative effect of individuals and organizations, which is why we have laws and rules to monitor such activities. I think that we do ourselves a disservice if we start legislating what we can and cannot advertise as long as it is informative and provides a service to Canadians.

Bottom line is that election periods are very tight - usually only 30 or so days (unless you run a municipal campaign - ugh!) so political parties both in government or in opposition need to get their word out to Canadians and until there are strict rules suggesting what you can and cannot do in between the election cycle, you will get various ads that will be viewed - rightly or wrongly - as partisan.

Marit Stiles:

Yeah I'm pretty sure that the legislation Bernie refers to was buried in an omnibus bill ... but back to the subject at hand.

This year could be a tipping point for Canadians, already concerned about government ad spending.

With a fixed election date you can expect all parties to be front-loading their advertising, looking to spend as much as possible before the writ drops.

Will Canadians be able to distinguish between Conservative party ads and Conservative government ads? I think perhaps not. Will Canadians start to wonder why their tax dollars are being spent on partisan messaging? I think increasingly yes.

Bernie Farber:

Nice pivot Marit, are you saying that the leader of the third party simply chooses not to read the bills before her?


Marit Stiles:

Sorry, I need to respond to that. ER, no Bernie, but she might not support a bill with other more offensive or less appealing elements, even if this nice nugget was buried within.


Bernie Farber:

Come on, Marit, there are ways to deal with the omnibus issue, if in fact it was, as you say, buried ... but enough of that.

John, your points are all well and good but limitations become important to ensure that politicians in this case do not overuse the right with public funds. For example, between 1995 and 2002, the previous PC government spent $401 million on advertising, including government ads starring Mike Harris.

Look, the Ontario Liberal government introduced the Government Advertising Act in 2004, giving the Auditor General the authority to oversee and approve government advertising before it can be used. The AG also reports annually on government advertising and ad expenditures.

In my view this is what Ontarians expect from their elected officials: transparency and honesty. Hopefully Ontario's third party will get on the right train next time around. Though I doubt we can hold much hope for the federal Tories.

About The Salon

John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; Bernie Farber is a former Ontario Liberal candidate and one of Canada's leading human rights experts.
Posted date : December 10, 2014

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