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Politics New federal advertising rules will limit use of Liberal red

Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, speaks in the House of Commons in Ottawa on March 7, 2016.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberals have unveiled a complete overhaul of federal advertising and communications rules, including tight restrictions on the use of red to avoid any perception of partisanship.

Red and white have been Canada's official colours since 1921, but new Treasury Board rules announced Thursday will prevent communications that use the primary colours of the governing party. Exceptions will be made for the red-and-white Canadian flag and for bodies that traditionally use red, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The policy is silent on the use of colours associated with other federal political parties. The main Government of Canada website currently features a blue banner.

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Treasury Board President Scott Brison made the announcement Thursday, describing the measure as an interim move that will ultimately be codified in law after consultation with Parliament and the public.

"The previous government, we believe, crossed the line repeatedly in terms of advertising and communication in a way that was abusive of taxpayers' interests and of democratic values," said Mr. Brison. "What we're doing today is a strong policy response to what was a real issue under the previous government."

The new advertising policy involves an annual contract with Advertising Standards Canada, a non-profit, self-regulatory body that oversees the advertising sector. The Liberal Party's platform had promised to have the Auditor-General perform that role. Mr. Brison said that may still happen depending on the outcome of consultations on legislative change.

Democracy Watch, an ethics and transparency advocacy group, praised the overall changes but said the reviews should be done by the Auditor-General and not an industry group made up of members who may have other dealings with government.

This process of sending ad campaigns for outside review is triggered when the total cost of the campaign exceeds $500,000. The government says this would capture more than 90 per cent of federal advertising. The non-reviewed ads and online content would still have to comply with the new policy on non-partisanship.

Advertising Standards Canada will be paid $65,000 a year plus GST to review the ad campaigns submitted by Ottawa.

Annual federal spending on advertising has fluctuated from $83.3-million in 2010-11 to a recent low of $68.7-million in 2014-15.

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The previous Conservative government was heavily criticized for its approach to its advertising, particularly campaigns that promoted what it called Canada's Economic Action Plan. The term was initially used to describe the government's stimulus response to the 2008-09 financial crisis, but it came to include all of the government's budget measures.

The new policy on communications and federal identity defines non-partisan communications as a message that is objective, factual and explanatory; free from political party slogans, images or identifiers; and that does not use the primary colour associated with the governing party "in a dominant way, unless the item is commonly depicted in that colour." Ads must also be free of the name, voice or image of federal politicians.

Mr. Brison said Advertising Standards Canada and common sense should be able to sort out when the colour red is being used in a non-partisan way.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, who chairs the House of Commons committee on Government Operations and Estimates, said he spoke with Mr. Brison Thursday morning about the possibility of having the committee review the issue and make recommendations for future legislation.

Mr. Lukiwski declined to comment on the Conservative record in this area, but said new advertising rules will likely be well received by most Canadians. He also said restricting the use of specific colours may be a challenge.

"That particular point would be difficult," he said. "That might be almost next to impossible to enforce, because who is to say that just the colour blue in an ad would be trying to influence people toward the Conservative brand, or red would be trying to influence people toward the Liberal brand, or orange or green or whatever? If the committee undertakes a study, they're going to have to take a hard look at that."

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