The Ontario Liberals have released advertisements touting their 25 per cent average hydro rate cut across the province, while the opposition is calling for an immediate end to the campaign because it serves a “partisan purpose.”
“Ontario has made important investments in clean, reliable energy. This has led to hydro bills that have become harder to pay,” one of the ads states.
“We’ve heard you. Hydro needs to be fair for everyone across the province and we’ve made fundamental changes to ensure this in the long-term.”
WATCH: New Ontario government radio ads would’ve been vetoed by Auditor General under old rules. Mark Carcasole reports.
Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said in November that changes to government advertising rules in 2015 has allowed the Liberals to “open the door” to billing taxpayers for millions of dollars in partisan advertisements.
Those changes removed the auditor’s discretionary powers to approve or reject ads, which Lysyk said reduced her office to a rubber stamp.
“Our Office approved the Hydro-related ads under the current version of the Government Advertising Act,” Lysyk said in a statement to Global News Friday.
“However, they would not have passed under the previous legislation because we feel that these ads have the objective of fostering a positive impression of the government.”
The old rules banned ads as partisan if the intent was to foster a positive impression of government or a negative impression of its critics. The new rules, however, say an ad is partisan only if it uses an elected member’s picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party or direct criticism of a party or member of the legislature.
The plan will see electricity rates in the province slashed by an additional 17 per cent this summer, on top of Ontario’s eight per cent HST hydro rebate that took effect Jan. 1., and will hold with the rate of inflation for four years.
The Ontario Progressive Conservatives accused the Liberals of mismanaging the program because $9.3 million was spent on consultants and $2.4 million on media and advertising.
Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault said in a statement Friday the government had a responsibility to “raise awareness” and pass along information to Ontario residents about programs and services that affect them.
“This includes informing Ontarians of changes to their electricity bills so that they can use this information to plan for the future as they manage their household budgets,” he said.
“We have committed to both radio and social media campaigns to inform Ontarians on these important changes.”Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown sent a letter to Treasury Board President Liz Sandals Friday claiming the ads “promote the government’s proposed hydro scheme.”
“Your government has no authority to be spending hard-earned taxpayer dollars on partisan radio and social media ads to promote a plan that has not yet been tabled, debated, and voted on in the Legislature,” the letter stated.
Brown said he was concerned the ads served a “partisan purpose” to “improve the government’s standing” with the public by using taxpayer money.
“Moreover, these ads are potentially costing taxpayers millions of dollars while millions of families, as well as businesses, hospitals and other public institutions, suffer every day from unaffordable electricity bills,” he said.
“In the past, I would have asked [Lysyk] to investigate any questionable and partisan advertisements. Unfortunately your government has stripped the Auditor General’s ability to do so.”
Brown called for an immediate end to the advertising campaign, for the Liberals to publicly release the cost of the ads and to reveal the names of firms that hold “lucrative advertising contracts.”
“First of all, no bill has been introduced to the legislature. So we don’t even have anything that’s approved. What we have are some press releases from the premier and that’s it,” New Democratic Party Energy Critic Peter Tabuns said.
“But really it’s consistent with the way the Liberals approach things. Their whole concern is making sure Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal party look good. And actually delivering results for people is way down on their list.”
Tabuns said his party would be filing a Freedom of Information request on the cost of the “self-congratulatory ad,” saying that it was not an effective use of taxpayers’ money.
With files from Mark Carcasole, Sasha Campbell and The Canadian Press
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