The Liberal government has announced it is making changes to the rules governing taxpayer-funded advertising.
“We recognize that the current policies are dated” and don’t effectively prevent partisan advertising, Treasury Board President Scott Brison told reporters Thursday morning.
“The previous government, we believe, crossed the line … and they did so on an ongoing basis.”
Here are some of the biggest changes:
- It will now be forbidden to advertise government programs that have not yet been approved by Parliament (the 2016 budget, for example).
- No government advertising can take place in the 90 days before a fixed general election date. The moratorium on advertising during a writ period remains in place.
- All government advertising must be non-partisan in nature, using a new definition of “non-partisan.” No precise definition existed before. Among other things, this means that no government minister, senator or MP can appear, or be heard in, a taxpayer-funded ad.
- Starting immediately, all government advertising campaigns over $500,000 must be reviewed by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), the national not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the integrity of advertising. ASC is being paid $65,000 per year (plus HST) by Ottawa to carry out the work.
- Messages related to urgent matters of public health and safety or the environment (emergency directives related to the Zika virus, for instance) are excluded from the ASC review process.
- The involvement of ASC as a review and enforcement mechanism is an interim approach. A permanent policy will be established down the line, after consultation.
Former employment minister Pierre Poilievre came under fire about a year ago for using taxpayer dollars to produce YouTube videos of himself promoting the Conservative government’s universal child care benefit.
Opposition MPs called them “vanity videos” at the time.
There was also controversy surrounding government advertising for the federal jobs grant.
Brison said that if the ASC receives a complaint and finds an ad is in violation of the new policies, that would be “something that we would obviously seek to avoid.” He did not say what specific sanctions (fines, etc) might be possible, however.
Complaints can be filed for campaigns that cost less than the $500,000 threshold, Brison noted.
The new definition of “non partisan” is exceptionally specific. Non-partisan communication is defined as being objective, factual and explanatory, free from party slogans, images, identifiers, bias, designation or affiliation.
The primary colour associated with the governing party (right now, Liberal red) can no longer be used “in a dominant way, unless an item is commonly depicted in that colour.”
That last requirement may cause some trouble for the Liberals, as red is often used as a dominant colour in government communications. The flag, of course, is also red and white. The dominant colour on the federal government’s website is less of an immediate issue, as it is currently blue.
“I think it’s actually going to be pretty clear if the governing party abuses this (colour rule),” said Brison. “Common sense will dictate when there’s a clear abuse.”