No plans to close loophole in taxpayer-funded government advertising

TORONTO – Despite promises of a more open and transparent government, Ontario’s Liberals have no plans to close what’s becoming a gaping loophole for partisan advertising.

Online advertising has ballooned in recent years, but it doesn’t fall under a law which requires all taxpayer-funded government ads to be screened by the auditor general to ensure they’re non-partisan.

About a quarter of all government spending on ads is online, totalling $10 million in 2012-13. The Liberals spent another $30 million on print, radio and television ads, which must be pre-approved.

They spent $34.8 million on ads in 2011-12 and $50 million in 2010-11 — the lead-up to the provincial election.

But in the last year, the government spent more on Internet advertising than it did for print, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk noted in her latest annual report released earlier this month. It’s second only to TV ads, which cost $12 million.

The time has come to close this “significant” loophole, she said.

“At the time the legislation came into play, there wasn’t a lot of Internet advertising,” Lysyk said Dec. 10, after delivering her report. “It’s changed.”

Ontario’s auditors have repeatedly called for the Liberals to close the loophole in the law they created in 2004. But it’s fallen on deaf ears.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said “it’s something we obviously will have to take into consideration.”

“We will absolutely look at it,” she said recently. “As the balance of advertising shifts, it’s important that we make sure that we’re providing the information that people need.”

Advertising in the public realm should be informative, Wynne added.

Yet the Liberals have refused to support legislation that would tighten the rules and expand the law to apply to the broader public sector, not just the government, said New Democrat Gilles Bisson.

Lysyk noted in her report that her office rejected three ad campaigns the government voluntarily submitted for “pre-review” — which takes place in the ad’s early stages of development and before large sums of money are spent —over concerns that they were partisan.

Two were about this year’s provincial budget and one about the Liberals’ efforts to slay their nearly $12-billion deficit. Some of the ads were revised and one was abandoned, the report said.

Bisson said the Liberals have big problems: the economy’s hurting, hydro bills are going up and now they’re looking at raising the gas tax to expand public transit in the Toronto-Hamilton region.

“The government is trying to find ways to make people look at the government in a positive way,” he said.

“So they’re doing that type of advertising at the taxpayers’ expense in order to try to bolster themselves when it comes to getting some votes from the public,” he said. “I think in the end, people see that for what it is.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he would close the loophole for online ads.

Taxpayer dollars should be used to help people, not wasted on political advertising, he said.

“We should put a stop to that,” Hudak said. “I don’t care if it’s newspaper, TV or online. It’s all the same.”

There are many advantages to web advertising, said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University who sits on a panel that helps the auditor vet ads.

A viewer has to record or be in front of a television to see a TV ad, but they can call up many government ads on YouTube or a website, he said.

“Whereas the TV and radio and print ads used to be the product, they are now a teaser to direct viewers or listeners or readers to a website,” said Rose.

“The reason why that is better is not only that’s where the traffic is flowing, but also the cost is cheaper and has the ability to be recalled at any time.”

Ontario’s law is unique in the world because it allows an independent office of parliament to review government ads, said Rose.

Liberal MP David McGuinty, former premier Dalton McGuinty’s brother, has proposed similar legislation to prescreen federal government ads.

Ontario’s law also doesn’t apply to brochures, newsletters, consultation documents, report or similar materials or publications, unless they’re a paid insert in a magazine or newspaper, or distributed by bulk mail.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care spent $5.4 million on ads, while the Ministry of Finance spent $9 million, more than any other ministry.

The government’s biggest ad spend was $4.8 million on a tax credit that allows seniors to retrofit their homes to make them more accessible. They also spent $3.9 million promoting another budget goodie — 30 per cent off tuition for some university and college students.

By comparison, they spent $3 million on Foodland Ontario, $1.6 million on ads about the seasonal flu and $1.4 million on full-day kindergarten.

The Liberals have co-operated in allowing some ads to be reviewed by the auditor even though the law doesn’t technically apply to them. For example, the first page or “click” of a website cited in a government ad is included in the auditor’s review.

The use of social media has grown exponentially since the law came into force in 2006, the auditor’s report said.

Their office is getting more ads for approval with icons pointing to the government’s presence on social media sites, it said.

They’ve reached an agreement with the government that the auditor will do an initial scan of any social media channel cited in an ad to ensure there are no partisan references.