Ontario’s auditor general is saying her cautionary warnings to the provincial government have come to a pass, with a damning report calling out millions of dollars in public funds going towards advertising deemed partisan.
“We cautioned when the government changed the law in 2015 that it was opening the door to this sort of thing,” Bonnie Lysyk said in an announcement Wednesday afternoon. “Sure enough, the government walked right through that open door.”
Last year, the government amended the auditor general’s abilities, limiting her ability to approve or reject ads.
At present, an advertisement is only deemed partisan if it uses an elected official’s name, voice, or even colour of a political party.
Under the previous rules, ads could not positively promote the government or leave a negative impression about critics.
Of the approximately $50 million in government ads during the last fiscal year, Lysyk said she would have flagged several under the old rules as misleading or self-congratulatory, as opposed to giving the public information.
The government’s treasury board president, Liz Sandals, touted the new rules as the most “aggressive” in Canada, disputing that any were to promote the government.
“Obviously the auditor has an opinion there and what I would say is that the information that is being conveyed in those ads is factually true,” she said.
The government spent $8.1 million advertising the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which was scrapped after an agreement to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, and Lysyk says she would have rejected some of those ads under the old rules.
Government money was used to reinforce a partisan message, Lysyk said, as publicly funded ads ran on radio and digital at the same time as Ontario Liberal Party television spots featured the premier talking about retirement security.
The government also continued advertising after the ORPP was scrapped in favour of CPP expansion, in effect using provincial dollars to advertise a federal program, she suggested.
Nearly $3 million was spent on a series of ad campaigns about the environment that Lysyk said could be seen as self-congratulatory or misleading.
Ads about the upcoming cap-and-trade plan “left the overall impression that industry will be financing the program, even though the Ontario consumer will bear most of the cost through increased home heating, electricity and fuel costs,” she said in the report.
In the fiscal 2015-16 year, the government spent $3.8 million on digital ads exempt from auditor review, she said. The auditor general’s office can review digital ads “that a government proposes to pay to have displayed on a website,” but the rules exempt ads on social media, Lysyk said.
Sandals suggested social media ads would be difficult to control.
“At some point you get into: what are people as individuals saying on social media sites?” she said. “That’s freedom of speech, but in terms of actual, paid government advertising…digital advertising actually does fall now within the jurisdiction of the auditor general.”