Consider these two depressing facts:
First, private companies are setting up magnetic resonance imaging clinics on the Ontario-Quebec border, providing a shortcut for anyone who is not prepared to wait weeks to be scanned by the vital diagnostic tool, and who has the cash, to jump the queue.
Second, the Mike Harris government's latest advertising campaign will top out at more than $3-million.
The Tories were delighted, this week, when sheer good fortune landed their ads promoting the Living Legacy park-expansion plan on the final episode of Survivor. Twice.
In the ad, the Premier himself provides the unctuous voice-over extolling his government's plan to create 2.4 million hectares of new wilderness areas, as ducks swim, moose chew and a camera skims over the treetops.
The Living Legacy ad is one of two currently blanketing the airwaves. Another celebrates the Tories' decision to introduce provincewide testing of students.
Neither program is new. The government established Living Legacy (formerly Lands for Life) in the winter of 1999. Provincewide testing began in 1997.
Neither program requires anything of you. The government doesn't need your input. There are no new rules you should be aware of, no new forms to fill out. Mr. Harris just thought you might like to know what a wonderful job he's doing on the environment and education fronts. All for the low, low price of $3-million.
One MRI machine costs about $1-million to install and $800,000 annually to run. Ontario has 28 of them. The government has embarked on a study to determine exactly how serious the province's MRI shortage is.
In Ottawa, there appear to be limits to the federal government's willingness to congratulate itself at the taxpayer's expense. Plans by Sport Minister Denis Coderre to launch a $5-million ad campaign to coincide with the Olympics were apparently scotched by the Privy Council Office and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps (which staggers the mind, but let it pass).
In Ontario, however, your thirst for knowledge about how wonderfully your government is treating you is, it appears, unquenchable. In 1997-98, the Harris government spent $43.5-million on media activities, most of which were dedicated to advertising. In 1998-99, it spent $65.5-million. (It was an election year.) In 1999-2000, the total was $52.4-million. So far this year, which is not half over, the Tories have splashed out $24.4-million -- and that does not include the cost of the Living Legacy and standardized-testing ads.
Whenever they're asked, the Tories offer some variation of the following excuse: The government of Ontario's policies and priorities are often distorted and misrepresented by its opponents, including powerful vested interests such as labour unions and the liberal media. In its own defence, the government commissions advertisements to communicate with the electorate directly, to explain its purposes.
Which is a crock. The government's opponents -- especially the labour unions -- haven't a fraction of the clout of the government. With the exception of doctors, they've lost every public-relations campaign they have waged against the Tories in the past five years.
And the news media are not terribly liberal these days, unless your definition of a liberal includes anyone still opposed to child labour in the mines.
But what matters most is that these ads don't explain the policies of the government of Ontario. They defend the actions of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, as governing party. It is the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario whose actions on the environment contributed to the deaths in Walkerton. It is the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario whose Bill 74 has risked fresh job action by teachers in the autumn. It is the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario that is responding to its political setbacks on the environment and education with ads trumpeting its record on the environment and education.
But it is not the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and its many loyal supporters who are paying for these partisan political advertisements. It is you and I who will pay.
And pay again, as we book our appointments for private MRIs.