The craziest thing I learned from the coverage last month of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was that the People’s Liberation Army still belongs to the Communist party. Six decades after Mao’s victory in Beijing, the army is still under the command of the party, not the state, and the Ministry of National Defence exercises no authority over it.
That’s as sure a sign as any, I figure, that China has a long way to go before it joins the civilized world. After all, here in the multi-party democracy that is Canada, we make a clear distinction between the private interests of a political party and the public interests of the state, especially when a party happens to find itself temporarily in power.
Or do we? For the past few weeks, while the country’s political observers have been preoccupied with the diverging fortunes of Ringo Harper and Iffy Ignatieff, a couple of Liberal MPs have been trying to draw attention to what they claim is the illegitimate use of the government communications budget to advance the narrow interests of the Conservative Party of Canada.
At issue is the multi-pronged campaign currently promoting the federal government’s economic recovery program, which includes print, radio and television ads, as well as the website actionplan.gc.ca. According to MPs Pablo Rodriguez and Martha Hall Findlay, the $56-million campaign is little more than Tory propaganda, thanks to ads that feature pictures of Tory ministers, repeat Tory talking points, and constantly refer to the government of Canada as the “Harper government.”
In a letter she sent to the Treasury Board last week, Hall Findlay accused the Conservatives of violating Treasury Board policies, federal conflict-of-interest guidelines, as well as the party financing provisions of the Canada Elections Act. And while she stopped short of asking the RCMP to investigate, the letter does request that the government immediately stop using taxpayer money to promote a partisan political agenda.
Apparently even officials in the Privy Council were not happy with the campaign. Of particular concern was the Action Plan website, which bears no resemblance to standard government of Canada websites. Instead, it is almost a clone of the Conservative party’s own site, tricked out in Conservative blue and larded with staged photos of Stephen Harper and members of his cabinet. The only indications that it is a government website are the small Canada watermark in the top right, and an even smaller image of the Canadian coat of arms at the very bottom.
This is hardly the first time an opposition party in Canada has raised concerns about a party in power using government advertising to promote its own interests. A decade ago in Ontario, the Mike Harris government’s overtly partisan communications strategy enraged the opposition. (Unsurprisingly, many of the same Tories are running the current federal Conservative campaign.) When the McGuinty Liberals took power in 2003, they quickly passed a law requiring that all government advertising be run past the provincial auditor general for approval.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly common in Canada for weak opposition parties to advocate new oversight mechanisms aimed at wrapping the government in an administrative straitjacket, trying to do through bureaucratic means what they can’t achieve politically. The near-fetish for things like free votes in Parliament and an independent ethics commissioner at the tail end of the Chrétien years was a direct expression of the sense that the system had achieved “Gritlock.” The recent obsession with the fate of parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page is another example of the appeal of quasi-legal rules or accountability measures when the opposition sees no easy path out of the wilderness.
Of course, what sounds like a good idea when you are in opposition can seem a pointless hindrance once you are in power, as the Ontario Liberals have discovered. In government, they are apparently finding it difficult to communicate complex policies to the public, their efforts hamstrung by their own legislation.
Rodriguez and Hall Findlay say they like the Ontario law, and promise to introduce a similar bill at the federal level once the Liberals return to power. In which case, the desire to strip federal advertising of partisanship needs to be brought to its logical conclusion. When it was pointed out to Hall Findlay last week that there was plenty of Liberal red and white in government messaging when the Liberals were in power, she replied that those just happened to be the colours on the Canadian flag. And while she didn’t come right out and say it, her message to the Conservatives was, tough.
Except there is no question the Liberals have benefited enormously over the years from this confusion of the “Liberal” and “Canada” brands. And if we really are concerned about public money advancing a partisan agenda, even inadvertently, surely it should be out of bounds for one party to monopolize the national colour scheme.
Here’s a suggestion for Pablo and Martha: if you want to show good faith on this issue, why not add a requirement that no party can use in its logo or advertising design the same colours and fonts used by the government. That would mean the Liberals have to come up with a new look, but surely that’s a small price to pay when it is principles of integrity, accountability and responsible government, as they put it, that are at stake.