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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and MP Martha Hall Findlay take questions during a news conference in Ottawa on Sept. 25, 2009. (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and MP Martha Hall Findlay take questions during a news conference in Ottawa on Sept. 25, 2009. (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters)

Liberals assail taxpayer-funded partisan ads Add to ...

An independent watchdog is needed to stop the "flagrant misuse of taxpayers' money" on partisan government advertising, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Friday.

The Liberals are proposing a system similar to one adopted in Ontario in 2004, which screens provincial government ads for partisanship and bans the use of any politician's name, image or voice.

A federal review group, Mr. Ignatieff said, would "make absolutely sure that the government of Canada advertises for the government of Canada - not for the party in power."

The Liberal proposal comes in reaction to news that the Conservative government is spending more than four times more on promoting its January budget than it is on public service messages for swine flu.

Critics have complained that the $34-million Economic Action Plan campaign - and in particular an accompanying government website - are infused with partisan Conservative messaging.

The Liberal proposal received an immediate endorsement from New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who also wants the auditor general to examine current government communications practices.

"I think public outrage is going to cause this to happen sooner rather than later," Mr. Martin told The Canadian Press.

But the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a rather cooler reaction.

The Liberal plan, said PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall, is "premised on the fact that there's something wrong with what we're doing" - a premise the government emphatically rejects.

"I think the [current]process works," Mr. MacDougall added.

"There are guidelines in place. We've certainly respected all of them."

The Prime Minister's spokesman could not immediately explain how including dozens of pictures of Mr. Harper on the action plan website assists Canadians in understanding where their tax dollars are being spent.

"Pictures help show Canadians their government and their prime minister are hard at work on the economy," Mr. MacDougall responded in a follow-up email.

Partisanship in taxpayer-funded ads is a recurring issue in federal politics, and one that previous versions of the Conservative party railed against when in opposition.

Mr. Martin said both Liberal and Conservative governments have been "guilty as hell of abusing what should be a black-and-white ethical issue."

Mr. Martin would also like to see MP mailing privileges - including those ubiquitous, government-paid leaflets that have been clogging Canadian mailboxes - put under the control of any new advertising review panel.

Opposition MPs have been complaining for more than a year that mass mailouts by Conservative MPs have pushed the rules on the leaflets to the breaking point. Some Liberal MPs have begun mailing out their own deeply partisan attacks this way.

It's all part of the "hyper partisanship" that has engulfed Parliament, Mr. Ignatieff said.

He linked the government ad campaign to Liberal party allegations that the Conservatives are disproportionately funnelling stimulus dollars to Tory-held ridings - a claim publicly bolstered this week by a Conservative candidate in Markham, Ont.

"It's the same pattern of hyper-partisanship that is making it impossible to work with this government," Mr. Ignatieff said.

He also alluded to a Toronto Star report Friday detailing the feverish Conservative communications planning for last spring's pork barbecue on Parliament Hill in support of pig producers.

"C'mon guys. We've got pork producers struggling for their lives," the Liberal Leader said.

"This is not a partisan political matter."

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