Who on earth was behind this?

May 20, 2015   ·   0 Comments

PERHAPS BEFORE LONG, Dalton McGuinty will recover from the tarnished image he suffered in trying to beat down the province’s teacher’s union by forcing them to accept a pay freeze and fewer benefits.

His successor as premier, Kathleen Wynne tried to get the unions’ support with legislation mandating bi-level collective bargaining, a mandate that has failed to produce a single collective agreement at either level and now sees thousands of Grade 12 students threatened with an inability to graduate, thanks to strike in Peel, Durham and the Sudbury district.

But one reform instituted by Mr. McGuinty that has stood the test of time was passage of the Government Advertising Act, which put an end to taxpayer-paid advertising designed to boost the government’s image.

During its decade in office (1994-2004) the Mike Harris government regularly used taxpayers’ money to run ads touting its own policies. Sometimes Mr. Harris even appeared in those ads, pitching his party’s health-care ideas, or  explaining how making government smaller would be “less taxing for all of us.”

Those commercials would have been fine had they been paid for by the Progressive Conservative party and identified as such. But the party in power was taking advantage of its control of purse strings to send a message designed to improve its image with the voters.

The Liberals campaigned against the abuse, and in 2004 passed the groundbreaking Government Advertising Act, which places extensive restrictions on government ads. They can be informational, but not promotional or partisan.

Most importantly, the law gives the province’s auditor-general the power to enforce those principles. As an independent officer, the current Auditor, Bonnie Lysyk, has broad discretion to reject any government advertising she considers partisan. She is the final judge of which ads can run, and which cannot.

Over the past decade, during which time the government of Ontario spent nearly half a billion dollars on advertising, we understand that the auditor sometimes ordered the government to make changes, such as toning down the use of Liberal red in commercials. On at least one occasion, she apparently refused to allow the government to run ads backing its own policies during an election campaign.

But now, suddenly, hidden in an omnibus budget bill is legislation critics say will emasculate the Act by removing the auditor-general’s oversight.

If the Wynne government has its way, we could wind up paying our precious tax dollars for TV commercials that tell us how wonderful the government’s new programs are, perhaps adorned with a new red-hued logo labelled “Ontario’s Action Plan.”

It’s almost as if the idea was conceived in Ottawa by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Don’t get us wrong. Taxpayer-funded government advertising can be an effective means of providing the public with important information and advice, one example being commercials that warn against smoking or promote inoculation of children. And who could doubt the value and effectiveness of those gorgeous commercials promoting Newfoundland and Labrador as a tourist destination?

Our suspicion is that this ridiculous government bill was promoted by a government ad agency that produced what it felt was good, neutral advertising, but which the auditor general saw as subtly promoting the government, perhaps because of too much Liberal red lettering.

Whatever the case, surely Premier Wynne will at least allow amendments to the new bill that would permit the auditor general or perhaps the provincial ombudsman to object to a proposed ad and have the issue placed before a legislature committee.

Ironically, Dalton McGuinty’s brother, Liberal MP David McGuinty, has a private member’s bill in Parliament which would mirror the existing Ontario legislation, and therefore has the chances of the proverbial snowball in hell.

Perhaps the McGuinty brothers could have a chat with Ms. Wynne and persuade her to back off.

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