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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

Do you remember them? A silly question, really, for who could forget the Economic Action Plan billboards all across Canada? Some of them are still around, believe it or not.

The billboards were placed everywhere, long after the Conservatives' Economic Action Plan finished. An almost manic effort to log their presence was centralized in Ottawa, for the Harper government was nothing if not focused on advertising.

Brazenly, Stephen Harper's government used your money to tell Canadians, by a variety of means, how wonderful it was. Even when legislation had not yet been passed by Parliament, television ads about an impending law appeared.

Recruiting ads for the armed forces. Training programs. Infrastructure. Job-creation programs. They were all advertised by the Harper government in Conservative blue with not-so-subtle reminders of who brought them to you. The television ads appeared in some of the most expensive slots: Super Bowl games, baseball playoffs, the run to the Stanley Cup. And, of course, there were radio buys, too.

The former prime minister even had his own propaganda team following him around to produce a social-media summary of his activities, something called 24/7, with The Maple Leaf Forever as background music. Again, paid for by you, designed to advertise Himself.

Canadian governments – and provincial ones, too – had used taxpayer money to advertise themselves before. But nothing equalled the efforts of the Harper government, blanketing the airwaves with shameless abandon.

Now, mercifully, the Trudeau government is crying "Halt!" to this squandering of money and ubiquitous propaganda. With the memory of the Harper government's methods still fresh, Treasury Board President Scott Brison has announced an end to misuse of government advertising.

Skeptics might snort that we have heard this before, but actually, no. Mr. Brison's declaration is the first time a federal government has so definitely forsworn using advertising for its own purposes.

He announced, among other measures, no advertising in the 90 days before an election; no use of party colours in advertising (red for the Liberals, blue for the Conservatives); no ads for programs not yet approved by Parliament (a Harper trick); a new definition of "non-partisan communications," with a review of that definition and its application for any campaign over $500,000 by a third party, Advertising Standards Canada; and an invitation to the Auditor-General to review the policy.

Beyond the words of the policy are the words of the minister on behalf of the government. For words of both kinds the government will properly be held to account.

In last year's election campaign, the Liberals promised to create an advertising commissioner to screen government ads for partisanship. Once in office, it became clear such a promise was overwrought and unnecessary. It would have created yet another mini-bureaucracy in a government that already has too many. So that promise died, fortunately.

Every government needs, periodically, to communicate information to citizens – from how to apply for programs to what tax changes are in the budget to how to use consular services overseas or get a passport renewed. That sort of communication is useful and important for citizens. Nobody denies this need.

What sticks in the craw – as we saw repeatedly in the Harper years – is turning even straightforward communication of information into not-so-subtle pitches for the governing party's wisdom and munificence.

It was therefore more than a bit rich for interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to greet the Liberal reforms with these reported words: "We expect them to follow all the same rules that we followed." That is, she said, with a straight face of the kind political acting requires, "advertising that's paid for by taxpayer dollars has to be used only for government programs."

There will always be opportunities for any government to deliver its message in ways that put it in the best possible light, and there will continue to be household mailings from MPs and columns they write in local newspapers, and announcements here, there and everywhere touting the deeds of the government and its members. Partisanship, after all, is politics.

But at least if Mr. Brison and his colleagues are good to their words, the blatant excesses of the previous government will be a thing of the past, so that the cynicism from misuse of advertising will no longer feature in our politics, for which we can all be grateful.