Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Under the NDP could we see a potential change to government advertising?

Every opposition in BC has at one point talked about improving the fairness of politics and improving the bottom line by getting rid of partisan government advertising.   At the end of last week Vaughn Palmer noted that the BC NDP is talking about how they would do this when they win office next May.

According to the piece the NDP is looking at the mechanism used in Ontario to decide if an ad is partisan or not.   They use the office of the Auditor General to decide if advertising is partisan or not.   This idea sounds like a good idea but does it work?   I asked some Ontario contacts for their impression and when I get some feedback I will add it to this post

Ontario enacted the Government Advertising Act in 2004, though the law is short and not very detailed.    When I look at the law what I see is a layer bureaucracy that will take extra time and money but I am not sure if it makes any difference.   Here are the legal standards they are working to:



Required standards
6.  (1)  The following are the standards that an item is required to meet:
1. It must be a reasonable means of achieving one or more of the following purposes:
i. To inform the public of current or proposed government policies, programs or services available to them.
ii. To inform the public of their rights and responsibilities under the law.
iii. To encourage or discourage specific social behaviour, in the public interest.
iv. To promote Ontario or any part of Ontario as a good place to live, work, invest, study or visit or to promote any economic activity or sector of Ontario’s economy.
2. It must include a statement that the item is paid for by the Government of Ontario.
3. It must not include the name, voice or image of a member of the Executive Council or a member of the Assembly.
4. It must not be partisan.
5. It must not be a primary objective of the item to foster a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity who is critical of the government.
6. It must meet such additional standards as may be prescribed. 2004, c. 20, s. 6 (1)

These are broad enough that I think the current BC Jobs Plan would likely pass the test without too many changes.  What really matters is how these are applied by the Auditor General.  Here are some of the relevant guidelines as of the revision of October 2012.

The item must not include the name, voice or image of any member of the Executive Council or of the Legislative Assembly (except where the primary target audience is outside of Ontario). The Auditor General’s Office extends this prohibition to include the use of the word “Premier” in advertisements intended for the Ontario market because, as we observed in our 2007 Annual Report, “most people can quickly associate the word ‘Premier’ with the name of the person who holds that position.” Please note that this rule also applies to first-click URLs.

If nothing else, I like this restriction

The item must not be partisan—that is, in the Auditor General’s opinion, a primary objective of the item cannot be to promote the governing party’s partisan political interests.

There is a lot of grey in this because anything that government does well, especially a core program of an election promise, could be viewed as partisan.

The item must not have a primary objective of fostering a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity who is critical of the government.

This is where the BC Jobs Plan could fail to meet the grade



To reduce the likelihood that an item will be perceived as partisan, it should contain subject matter relevant to government responsibilities (that is, matters over which the government has direct and substantial responsibilities). The item should emphasize facts and explanations rather than the political merits of proposals, and present messages objectively, in both tone and content. The item should also outline factual information clearly and accurately, presenting that information in unbiased and objective language.

Advertisements should avoid using a preponderance of colours commonly associated with the governing political party. As well, logos, slogans and catch-phrases of the government party should be avoided.

What happens if the colours used by the government and the political party are close?  I do like saying they should not be using slogans or catch phrases from the government party but sometimes this can be hard to do if both use very similar branding.

Advertisements may feature a celebrity, but the Auditor General’s Office will consider whether the celebrity has had any political and/or public associations that could result in the advertisement fostering a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity critical of the government. The Auditor General’s Office will also monitor to ensure that no such political and/or public association begins during the life of the media buy.


Items should not attack opponents or critics of the government, and should not directly or indirectly attack the policies, opinions or actions of a person or entity critical of the government (such as opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly or other levels of government). Items should not be aimed primarily at rebutting the arguments of others. Items should not use a URL to direct readers/viewers/listeners to a web page or pages whose content may lead the Auditor General to conclude that the item does not meet the standards required by the Act.

Sounds good, but I do not know of a lot of examples of government advertising that has been used in this way.

The above points describe some of the considerations applied by the Auditor General’s Office in its review of advertising items. The Auditor General’s Office may also consider other factors that are useful in assessing partisanship in government advertisements and printed matter.



The advertising that is covered includes mailings to households by government offices.  It also applies to any content from the first click from any ad.

The exceptions to the law, the most obvious one being the need for immediate advertising for public health and safety.  Also exempt are advertising of jobs, legal notices, or the provision of goods and services to government.
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