Government advertising and accountability
Recently, The Globe and Mail reported that Pierre Poilievre’s department paid civil servants overtime to produce feel-good ads about the Universal Child Care Benefit. The problem with this ad, like all the federal ads, is that they are beyond the scrutiny of parliament and therefore citizens.
These youtube ads have rightly raised the ire of many who see this as a blatant use of taxpayer’s money for partisan purposes. This government, and governments of all partisan stripes, like to argue that advertising is an important part of providing information to citizens. They tell us that such information is timely, important and needed. Unfortunately, because the regulations around advertising at the federal level are a patchwork of guidelines, rules and norms, it is hard to know if this claim is true.
To be fair, most ads by government are non-controversial. Increasingly they don’t provide much information but are a way to drive interested viewers to a government website where the nitty gritty can be explored. If you watch most ads you will likely see a series of compelling but fleeting images, designed to draw in the viewer but really as bait to drive viewers to a government website that almost always appears in the tag line of the ad. But if people are interested in programs of the government, wouldn’t they seek out that information through a quick Google search? The government would say that the problem is that many don’t know about the benefits that they can access and on this point they might be right. What makes the Poilievre ad egregious is that, like many ads, they do not require any action on the part of the citizen. Canadians get the benefit whether they know about it or not as it’s given when you file taxes. Knowing about the Universal Child Care Benefit — the nominal justification of the ad — is irrelevant to receive the benefit. Providing information is used as a cover for governments and gives them licence to tout the governing party’s platform at taxpayer’s expense. And that, of course, is what is so irksome.
In Ontario, where the Government Advertising Act regulates advertising, the sponsoring ministry must demonstrate through polling or focus group tests that indeed, there is a need for the ad campaign. All government ads must meet certain criteria in order to be in compliance with the Act and ads cannot be partisan based on the criteria set out in the Act.
Ontario is the only jurisdiction that regulates advertising in such a way. When implemented by the previous McGuinty government, it was a landmark piece of legislation designed to shine light on the regulatory practices that have existed in the shadows. It’s not perfect by any means but it is an important recognition that governments need to be accountable for the way they spend money and advertising — an increasingly important part of the communication apparatus — should be subject to the same degree of accountability. The recent proposed changes of the Act by the Wynne government dilute the purpose of the Act and reduce its oversight function. Not surprisingly, they have been strongly opposed by the Ontario Auditor General (full disclosure: I am part of the Ontario Auditor General’s advisory body that makes recommendations on government ads).
After the sponsorship scandal at the federal level, government advertising practices were improved and consolidated including an annual report of the government’s expenditures that disclosed how much was spent in which departments. While the changes were steps in the right direction, they did not go far enough and the government has been very slow in posting its Annual Reports of Government Advertising. Parliamentarians, or an independent legislative officer, need to be able to scrutinize this expenditure and ask questions of it. Citizens want it and the principle of a government responsible to parliament demands it.
We need to remember that during an election, expenses of parties are regulated in order to ensure principles of transparency and fairness. Parties must disclose campaign contributions and expenditures. The problem with advertising by government is that the line between party and government is blurred. Ads that should be paid for by the party are paid for by the government. And the oversight of expenditures, an important and well enshrined parliamentary principle, is non-existent.
The recent ads by Pierre Poilievre are not exceptional. Should we be indignant that civil servants were paid overtime to produce the ads? Sure, but I think that misses the point. An election is a great time to see what all parties will do to regulate government advertising. I, for one, will be looking at all parties’ election platforms to see what solutions they propose.
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