British Columbia's New Democrats would ban partisan political ads if they won the spring election, says party Leader John Horgan, amid new concerns about the tone and cost of provincial government advertising that have prompted a lawsuit and questions from the Auditor-General.
Mr. Horgan noted the NDP has tabled private member's bills several times that would impose standards for publicly funded ads, empower the auditor-general to review government advertising and banned government advertising in the four months before a general election.
"I believe it's the job of government to inform the public when they need to be informed," said Mr. Horgan. A spokesman later explained that the NDP policy would not rule out service ads.
Last week, a pair of Vancouver criminal lawyers announced plans for a class-action suit to force the governing BC Liberals to pay taxpayers back some of the about $16-million that the government expects to spend on ads in the current fiscal year – twice what was budgeted. At issue is the concern that the advertising ahead of the election campaign unfairly benefits the Liberals, who seek a fifth consecutive term.
Auditor-General Carol Bellringer has also asked for a meeting with cabinet minister Andrew Wilkinson, whose portfolio includes advertising, after government data showed spending on ads has spiked in the fiscal years leading up to the past three provincial elections. That meeting is now set for Thursday.
"If [the BC Liberals] cannot win an election on their record; if they cannot win an election on the content of their ideas, they should be thrown to the curb," Mr. Horgan said.
Mr. Wilkinson dismissed the NDP commitment as typical of the party's simplistic solutions. He said it's not so easy to slot out government advertising, noting there is a baseline of government communications on such public-interest issues as lake levels, wildfire prevention, influenza issues, and unpredictable files such as the opioid crisis.
"It's very easy to toss around the term partisan advertising, but where does one draw the line in all of this to say that telling people to look for a job on the following website is arbitrarily deemed to be partisan when, in fact, it is not?"
He said voters understand that the government needs to communicate with them on occasion.
"To somehow write a line right through the middle of it saying some of it is partisan and some of it is not is not really a very productive exercise so in typical fashion the NDP is engaging in this type of bumper-sticker politics," said Mr. Wilkinson, a Vancouver member of the legislature who is also the Advanced Education Minister.
"They want a slogan out there to catch people's attention, but if people think it through, it's never as simple as people say it is."
The minister has previously noted that government ads are vetted by ministry staff, who ensure that the material is fact based, non-partisan and refers to a program requiring participation from the public.
Mr. Wilkinson, who noted that NDP governments in B.C. used partisan advertising, dismissed NDP private member's bills on the advertising issue as "simplistic, politicized" and not worthy of being put through the legislative process.
"This has been their pattern for many years. They do these as more of a political stunt than a substantive effort."
BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said in a statement on Monday that he supports the establishment of a public watchdog to oversee advertising and communications to ensure there is no misuse or partisan conflict.