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Chest-thumping B.C. Liberals could take a lesson from Ontario

For weeks now, we've witnessed the B.C. Liberal government ramp up its $15-million, taxpayer-funded advertising campaign.

There has been much discussion about one of the latest spots appearing on television – the infamous dominoes ad. In it, the Liberals contrast their record with other governments around the world. It is mostly a one-minute pat on the back for a job well done – or so the government wants you to believe.

It is also the most overtly partisan of the many ads that the government has been running.

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The collapsing dominoes – which are actually smartphones, how hip is that? – are supposed to represent jurisdictions whose economies have fallen on hard times because of poor economic management. B.C. is still standing tall, the ad wants you to believe, because of the prudent fiscal management of the Liberals – something everyone should keep in mind come election time in May.

Of course, the ad doesn't come right out and say that but it doesn't need to – it's clearly implied.

Last week, pollster Angus Reid went into the field to see what kind of impact the ad was having with the public. It played the spot to 806 random British Columbians, a survey, we're told, that produces a margin of error of 3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. Respondents were given 10 words that could be used to portray the ad; they were asked to pick four that best described their feelings toward it.

The options were: useless, deceiving, untrue, informative, fair, offensive, true, unfair, respectful, honest. So what did people think?

The three descriptors that received the greatest response were all negative: Useless got 43 per cent; Deceiving, 42 per cent; Untrue, 31 per cent. Not surprisingly, those people who said they voted NDP in the last election were more likely to see the ad in a negative light. That said, even many of those who said they voted Liberal in the last trip to the polls had problems with it.

For instance, 38 per cent of those 2009 Liberal voters said they felt the ad was useless, while 30 per cent saw it as deceiving and 22 per cent described it as untrue. (For the record,here is how the other words fared: informative 29 per cent, fair 24, offensive 17, true 16, unfair 15, respectful 14 and honest 11).

So is the dominoes ad backfiring?

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"In a certain way it is," says Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. "Because ultimately you want people to look at the record of government and establish a trust in the way it's been handling things. That certainly hasn't happened here. It's not really helping the government at all.

"And the other thing is it's not establishing any kind of emotional connection with the one person the ad is supposed to be supporting and helping and that's Christy Clark."

The pollster didn't ask whether people felt that this was the best use of taxpayers' dollars. My guess is a majority would have said no. The Liberals must intuitively know this themselves and yet persist with the ads. They obviously believe there is still more upside for them in running them than downside.

It's a fairly cynical calculation, especially at time when the government is saying no to all sorts of groups, charitable and otherwise, as it slashes costs in a bid to present a balanced budget later this month. When you're talking about a $41-billion budget, $15-million may not seem like a lot of money. But even a fraction of it could be the difference between life and death for an organization that relies on government help for its existence.

Other provinces have moved to outlaw this kind of outright pandering for votes at taxpayers' expense.

Ontario, for instance, has the Government Advertising Act, which empowers the province's auditor-general to decide what constitutes a partisan ad. In this role, the auditor-general has rejected several attempts by the Liberal government to launch ads at taxpayers' expense on the grounds that they crossed the line from objective, unbiased and accurate to overtly political and self-serving.

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To be fair, this is not a phenomenon in B.C. of which only the B.C. Liberals are responsible. During its decade in power, the NDP was just as guilty of using tax dollars to finance political ads that should have been paid for by the party itself. Even current NDP Leader Adrian Dix admits that.

But now he realizes how wrong that is and has vowed to enact legislation that is largely based on the Ontario law regulating government advertising. The proposed NDP law, in fact, would go even further and extend to online advertising, which the Ontario law doesn't cover. It is almost certain to become part of the NDP's election platform.

For that, the NDP should be applauded. It's a law that should have been in place here a long time ago.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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