One of the tenets of populist politics is that, if your opponent blurred a line while in power, you are allowed to obliterate that same line if you happen to form the next government. It doesn’t even matter that you may have promised to reinforce the line in question, or to paint it a brighter colour, just go ahead and plant two feet firmly on the wrong side of it as if it was never there at all.
Such is the case of the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario and its use of public funds to create advertisements that are clearly outside the lines that define what is non-partisan government messaging, and what is partisan propaganda.
It’s one of the blurrier lines in politics. It can sometimes be tricky to pinpoint where an ad for a government program becomes a pitch for the party in power. It could be in the choice of a background colour that mimics that of the party’s logo, or in the way it puts the government of the day in a positive light, instead of merely providing citizens with useful information about a public program.
All governments of all stripes blur the line – usually in small ways. But in the case of an Ontario ad campaign attacking the federal government’s carbon tax – an ad going after the policies of another level of government, and a rival political party – there is no grey area at all.
It’s partisan propaganda, pure and simple. And it’s being delivered by a government that vowed in opposition not only not to partake of such chicanery, but also to restore a provincial law banning such advertising.
Once upon a time, Ontario was the first and only province that legislated against the use of public funds to glorify a government. In 2004, the then-Liberal administration passed legislation requiring all government advertising be reviewed by the provincial auditor-general, to ensure it didn’t veer into partisanry.
The auditor-general was given the absolute power to stop any Ontario government ad from appearing on the internet, on TV, on radio or on a billboard if it crossed the line. The law also stipulated in clear terms where the line was drawn.
An acceptable ad had to inform taxpayers about new services available to them, or about their rights and responsibilities under a new law. It could not feature the voice or face of a cabinet minister or MPP. It had to be nonpartisan, and its main goal could not be to foster a positive impression of the government, or attack a person or group critical of the government.
Sadly, the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne eviscerated those rules in 2015. It amended the legislation to say that, so long as a government ad doesn’t use the name or image of an elected official, or the logo of a political party, the auditor-general has to deem it “non-partisan” and approve it.
That weakened the law to the point of insignificance. It also led to a flood of spending on government ads that would not have been approved under the original legislation because, as the auditor-general’s office said of one case in particular, "the general thrust of this feel-good campaign is to foster a positive impression of the governing party.”
The PC Opposition promised to do better, and to restore the original law. But that was before Mr. Ford won the party leadership.
Now the PC government is running what amounts to an attack ad against another level of government, based on a deliberately unfair and inaccurate representation of the federal carbon-tax regime. Ontario’s Auditor-General has said the ad lacks “all the relevant facts” and would not have been allowed under the old law.
This has implications beyond Ontario. Elections Canada says that it has no jurisdiction to control advertising by the provinces during the coming federal election. Where all the federal political parties and candidates, along with third-party groups, will be restricted to preset amounts, a provincial government will be free to do what it wants.
The Ford government’s disdain for ethics and convention, combined with Ontario’s now-toothless government advertising rules, leaves the door open for the province to influence the federal election by running taxpayer-funded, anti-Liberal ads during the campaign. That would be a perversion of federal electoral laws and of provincial laws designed to prevent governments from spending tax dollars on outright partisan messages.
But, hey: Someone else did it first.