The Ontario Liberal government was forced to change the colour of the bricks on a building from red to brown in a television ad about Ontario Savings Bonds because the Auditor-General deemed the bold red colour politically partisan.
Now, Kathleen Wynne's government is changing the law on advertising to make the definition of partisan "clearer." It argues that auditors-general have ordered changes that cost taxpayers a considerable amount. It cited the $19,500 cost of an ad featuring a happy stick-figure family promoting the 2013 Ontario budget that was rejected as "too feel-good."
But Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk says the amendments will gut the legislation and her power to protect Ontarians' money.
Rather than being clearer, she says the definition of what is considered partisan will be narrowed.
"The only thing I sense here is that there is a desire to go out there more and tell people how great government is," Ms. Lysyk said, adding that there is no point for the Auditor-General to do this work if the act is changed.
The amendments, she said, would allow the government to feature a "person on the street getting up to say, 'This government has introduced great policies for new programs on education, on health. These guys get me, but the guys over there don't.'"
She called it "free campaign advertising" for the Liberals.
The Ontario government is making the changes as the federal Conservative government is under fire over reports it is spending $13.5-million in April and May to sell its recent budget, just months before an expected fall election.
The federal Liberals launched their own ads complaining about the amount of taxpayers' money the Harper government spends on advertising.
Ontario Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who defends the change to the provincial law, criticized the federal government advertising, saying "there is a lot of blue in their ads."
"They would not be permitted under this legislation," she said.
She said an auditor-general needs discretion and the changes would compromise the independence of her office.
Under the amendments, an ad is considered partisan if it contains the name, voice or image of a member of the government; if it has a party logo or a colour associated with a party, Ms. Lysyk said.
"Basically, we use a lot more criteria in determining partisan," she said of the current legislation. In addition to logos and colour, she also can consider tone and content, and ensures the language is not biased. Facts can be checked and an ad indirectly attacking another party could be vetoed. Self-congratulatory ads or those aimed at building the government's image could also be questioned.
Ms. Matthews said her government simply wants a clear definition of "partisan."
"The legislation … is not working that well right now, we just want to clarify it," she told reporters. "There is a whole lot of subjectivity in that language and that's what we've learned.… It has made it very difficult for us to put ads on the air."
Ms. Lysyk, who has been Auditor-General for 18 months, says she has rejected one ad since she took office. It suggested manufacturing was "booming" in Ontario, she said, and that was not factual.
Under the changed legislation, Ms. Lysyk said, that ad could be broadcast on television.
It is the only legislation in Canada, the government says, that bans government-paid politically partisan advertising in newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Ms. Matthews said that mandate will be broadened to include digital advertising, transit and movie-theatre advertisements.