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B.C. Auditor-General calls for tougher guidelines on government advertising

B.C. Auditor-General Carol Bellringer said she called Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for the ad program, to her office for a meeting this week after viewing the government’s ad campaign highlighting the budget surplus.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Auditor-General says political partisanship appears to have crept into taxpayer-funded government advertising, prompting her call Friday for tougher monitoring guidelines.

Carol Bellringer said she called Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for the ad program, to her office for a meeting this week after viewing the government's ad campaign highlighting the budget surplus. She said an ad discussing the government's balanced budget and a proposed cut to medical premiums appeared to exceed guidelines for information that should be included in public communications.

Ms. Bellringer said she told Mr. Wilkinson that the commercial mentioning a balanced budget and the proposed Medical Services Plan (MSP) cut is political in nature and beyond what should be included in government messages.

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Ms. Bellringer said she pointed out to him that the government was advertising a budget that had not been passed by the legislature and highlighting MSP cuts that wouldn't take effect until next year.

"If that particular ad met the guidelines, then [the government] needs to change the guidelines," she said.

Ms. Bellringer said her meeting with Mr. Wilkinson was constructive and he was responsive to her concerns.

A November, 2014, report from Auditor-General's office recommended the government establish a policy that "explicitly prohibits the use of partisan political information in public government communications," and provides guidelines on what should or should not be included in government communications.

The report also recommended adherence to the policy.

"In B.C., it's neither a law or a regulation," said Ms. Bellringer. "It's an internal guideline."

She said she was not planning to conduct a further audit or investigation into the matter to ensure guidelines are being met.

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Mr. Wilkinson was not available for an interview Friday, but in a statement said: "The auditor-general provided a perspective on government advertising. She is not planning an audit of government advertising and she suggested that the existing guidelines around advertising be revised in the foreseeable future."

The latest round of government ads were set to expire Friday. The official election call is April 11.

Last week, two Vancouver lawyers filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the government and the BC Liberal Party alleging misuse of taxpayer dollars for partisan advertising.

The notice of claim in British Columbia Supreme Court alleged that the government spent taxpayer dollars on advertising that enhanced the party's image while promoting the province.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

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