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OPINION: When political ads are propaganda

Published on

George Mathewson

You might have seen the commercials on TV – happy, industrious Canadians enjoying the benefits of the federal government’s Economic Action Plan.

“Across Canada, Canadians are working hard,” begins one recent spot. A boy walks his dog through a middle-class neighbourhood while the voice-over extolls tax credits, child-care breaks and other government plums.

It’s a subtle piece of marketing. Unless you pay close attention to the fine print in the final two seconds you’d have no idea all this helpful largesse from the Harper government is actually an agenda yet to be approved by Parliament.

I dislike the Economic Action Plan ads, which strike me as nothing more than political propaganda paid for by us, the taxpayers.

According to the Globe and Mail, the Conservative government has spent more than $100 million on action plan ads alone since 2009, and last year wasted $2.5-million to advertise a job grant that, likewise, did not yet exist.

While adept at it, the federal Conservatives did not invent partisan political messaging, of course. Governments of all stripes have been raiding the public purse for decades to blur the boundary between useful information and self-promotion.

Last week, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk locked horns with the Ontario Liberals after the Kathleen Wynne government moved to ease long-standing restrictions in the Government Advertising Act.

The act is too “subjective,” according to Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who cited the seemingly frivolous case of the auditor rejecting an Ontario Foodland ad that featured too many red apples, strawberries and peppers. Red happens to be the Liberals’ colour.

Revisions to the act, which were buried in the spring budget bill, would outlaw the name or image of an MPP or cabinet member and the name, logo and colours of a political party “to a significant degree,” whatever that means.

The auditor general has dug in her heels, however, saying the new criteria would remove her powers to decide if an ad is partisan and be a “fatal blow” to the law.

It should be noted it was the previous Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty that created the rules in the first place, as a way to limit the governing party’s promotion of its own partisan interests.

Ontario became the first and remains the only province with a law of this kind in Canada. The fact the party that created it now wants to weaken it suggests that, far from being subjective, it has been too effective at limiting taxpayer-funded propaganda.



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