Time to end taxpayer-funded partisan ads

If you’ve watched any TV lately, you may have seen some Government of Canada ads.

Aaron Wudrick, Federal Director


If you’ve watched any TV lately, you may have seen some Government of Canada ads. Perhaps you’ve seen the one warning of the dangers of smoking marijuana, promoting the government’s “Economic Action Plan,” or explaining recently announced tax cuts and credits. You may have also seen some of their advertisements in print, on billboards, on radio or online.

These ads are all paid for with your tax dollars. The argument in favour of them goes something like this: the public needs to know about government programs and services available to them, so these ads serve a legitimate purpose by providing them with information. On the surface, this isn’t controversial; informing citizens about the rights and responsibilities, new programs, or warning them about health or safety risks are arguably reasonable things a government might decide to tell the public about. But it certainly doesn’t explain situations such as the one in 2013 when the government spent $2.5 million on ads for the Canada Jobs Grant – a program which didn’t even exist at the time.

The opposition Liberals claim that since 2006 the Conservative government has spent nearly $750 million on advertising. Thanks to a lack of specifics, it’s very hard to pin down an exact figure – but regardless, there is absolutely no oversight with respect to what these ads promote.

The reality is that for an incumbent government, the temptation to torque ads for partisan gain will always be great. If a government can use public dollars to “inform” Canadians by conveniently putting a positive spin on the governing party’s policies at the same time, they probably will. This is not only a waste of precious resources; it’s also an affront to fairness in a democracy. Further, it violates the democratic principle that public dollars shouldn’t be directed towards partisan ends.

Rather than leave politicians in a position to succumb to this temptation, there’s a relatively simple way to ensure ads are nonpartisan: put an independent third party in charge of vetting proposed government ads.

We already have a good Canadian example of a system that works. In 2004, Ontario’s government introduced the Government Advertising Act, which requires that ads be non-partisan as determined by the Auditor General, supported by a four-person independent body called the Advertising Review Board. In her 2013-14 report, the Auditor General noted that her office reviewed a total of 145 submissions with an average turnaround time of about eight days. They rejected just one ad during that time for being too partisan.

Ontario’s government spends about $30 million per year on advertising. Whether or not that’s a reasonable sum is up for debate; but at the very least Ontarians can rest assured that money is being spent for purposes beyond the pure partisan gain of the governing party of the day. Canadians have no similar guarantee when it comes to federal government ad spending, and they should.

It’s time for the Harper Conservatives to follow Ontario’s lead and implement similar third-party oversight of its advertising.