News / Toronto

Ontario spending millions on government ads that are partisan: auditor

TORONTO — Ontario's taxpayers have footed the bill for millions of dollars in government advertising that actually appears partisan, the auditor general said Wednesday, and millions more in social media ads her office isn't allowed to review.

"We cautioned when the government changed the law in 2015 that it was opening the door to this sort of thing," Bonnie Lysyk said as she released her annual report. "Sure enough, the government walked right through that open door."

Changes the government made to advertising rules removed the auditor's discretionary powers to approve or reject ads, she said, reducing her office to a rubber stamp.

The old rules banned ads as partisan if the intent was to foster a positive impression of government or a negative impression of its critics, but the new rules say an ad is partisan only if it uses an elected member's picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party or direct criticism of a party or member of the legislature.

Government ads also used to have to inform people about programs, policies, services or their rights and responsibilities, change social behaviour or promote Ontario.

Of the approximately $50 million in government ads during the last fiscal year, Lysyk said she would have flagged several under the old rules as misleading or self-congratulatory, as opposed to giving the public information.

Treasury Board President Liz Sandals defended the new rules as "the most aggressive government advertising legislation of any jurisdiction in Canada." She disputed that any were self-congratulatory.

"Obviously the auditor has an opinion there and what I would say is that the information that is being conveyed in those ads is factually true," she said.

The government spent $8.1 million advertising the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which was scrapped after an agreement to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, and Lysyk says she would have rejected some of those ads under the old rules.

Government money was used to reinforce a partisan message, Lysyk said, as publicly funded ads ran on radio and digital at the same time as Ontario Liberal Party television spots featured the premier talking about retirement security.

The government also continued advertising after the ORPP was scrapped in favour of CPP expansion, in effect using provincial dollars to advertise a federal program, she suggested.

Nearly $3 million was spent on a series of ad campaigns about the environment that Lysyk said could be seen as self-congratulatory or misleading.

Ads about the upcoming cap-and-trade plan "left the overall impression that industry will be financing the program, even though the Ontario consumer will bear most of the cost through increased home heating, electricity and fuel costs," she said in the report.

In the fiscal 2015-16 year, the government spent $3.8 million on digital ads exempt from auditor review, she said. The auditor general's office can review digital ads "that a government proposes to pay to have displayed on a website," but the rules exempt ads on social media, Lysyk said.

Sandals suggested social media ads would be difficult to control.

"At some point you get into: what are people as individuals saying on social media sites?" she said. "That's freedom of speech, but in terms of actual, paid government advertising...digital advertising actually does fall now within the jurisdiction of the auditor general."

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