Liberal private member's bill aims to limit tenor and volume of federal ads

OTTAWA – It you’re tired of seeing tax dollars spent boasting about the Canadian economy and Conservative budgets during Hockey Night in Canada, a Liberal MP thinks he has the solution.

Ottawa MP David McGuinty has tabled a private members bill in the House of Commons that, if passed, could limit both the partisan tenor and volume of federal government advertising.

“It’s time to bring Canada’s advertising rules into the 21st century,” McGuinty said Thursday at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

The proposal would see an independent advertising commissioner installed under the auditor general, whose job would be to prescreen government advertising to ensure it is informative and non-partisan.

McGuinty’s model is the Ontario Government Advertising Act of 2004, which established an outside panel of experts to vet provincial ads before they go public.

Governments as far afield as Australia and New Zealand have been grappling with what Aussies call “the temptation” to use public funds for government ads designed mainly to assist the party in power.

Jonathan Rose, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., sits on Ontario’s four-member advertising panel.

The model, he said, is “absolutely transferable” to the federal level.

“It allows for some transparency in government advertising and it allows for accountability … to an office of Parliament,” Rose said in an interview. “So it’s independent and neutral and therefore has legitimacy.”

Rose said the process doesn’t necessarily curb ad spending, but it does impose minimum advertising standards that all government ministries tend to follow.

Nonetheless, McGuinty pounded away Thursday on the cost issue, citing everything from shrink-wrapped public transit buses in Toronto to the 9,000 “Economic Action Plan” signs littering Canada’s highways and byways.

McGuinty noted that in Ottawa alone, as a condition of receiving federal infrastructure dollars, the city was forced to install 91 action plan billboards at a total cost to municipal coffers of about $45,000.

He said that spots on Hockey Night in Canada, which the government has used to pitch its economic message, can cost up to $95,000 each.

McGuinty says he’s heard from countless Canadians who are irritated by the barrage of government ads and billboards.

“Every member of Parliament from every party, including government members, cannot look their constituents in the eyes and justify this spending,” he said.

The Harper government has spent more than $113 million since 2009 on “action plan” advertising, part of the total $670 million they’ve spent or booked through the end of next year on advertising since coming to office.

The Conservatives have also booked $16.5 million this year to promote their “responsible resource development” campaign for pipeline construction and to boost Canada’s extraction industries.

The advertising culture appears embedded in the machinery of the government.

One senior analyst in the Privy Council Office, which serves the prime minister and cabinet, signs off her emails with the tagline: “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise!” according to documents obtained under Access to Information.

The ad legislation is a long way from being law.

Although Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan has boasted about the record number of private members’ bills passed under his government’s watch, McGuinty’s proposal is well down in the MP lottery system for even bringing the legislation to debate.

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