TORONTO — Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is breaking an election promise to restore the auditor general’s powers over government advertising.
When they were in Opposition, the Tories railed against changes the Liberal government of the day made to the rules, which the auditor general said reduced her office to a rubber stamp.
They promised during the 2018 election to restore the office’s oversight of government ads, and at various points in the past three years the government has said it was reviewing the issue. Now, the Tories have decided not to go ahead.
“We have a great working relationship with the auditor general when it comes to government advertising and are maintaining the status quo at this time,” Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for Premier Doug Ford, said in a statement.
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, but the Liberals amended them in 2015 to 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.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk raised frequent concerns with Liberal ads that she would have deemed partisan under the old rules and critics said it meant the Liberal government was spending millions of taxpayer dollars on partisan advertising.
Lysyk said in a recent interview that is not happening nearly as much now as it was under the former government.
“We’re really not receiving ads that we would view as non-partisan to the same extent as the period after the act was changed,” she said.
“Ideally, it would be great to have the original act back. Practically, realistically, do we think at this point that will happen in the next while? I don’t have an indication of that, but I think we can work with the situation where, you know, we still receive them, we look at them, if we see anything, we provide feedback.”
Lysyk said she will continue publicly reporting on any government ads that wouldn’t have passed muster under the old rules. She noted in 2019 that an anti-carbon tax ad would have been partisan under the previous legislation because it didn’t have all the facts, criticized another government and aimed to put the government in a more positive light.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Tories’ decision to leave the rules in place is “hypocritical.”
“When blocking the auditor’s participation helped (former premier) Kathleen Wynne to use government advertising for her own party purposes, Doug Ford vowed to change the rules,” she said in a statement.
“Now that it benefits him and his cabinet buddies, Ford is flip-flopping.”
Horwath said the NDP would restore the powers if they win next year’s election.
But the Liberals, like the Progressive Conservatives, are not interested in reverting to the former rules.
“Ontario Liberals are laser-focused on doing whatever it takes for Ontario to recover from crippling Conservative cuts to jobs, health care, long-term care, our schools, and our environment,” a spokesman said in a statement.
“We will continue fighting for action on those important files, and this won’t be a priority in our first term.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said oversight of government advertising is important to ensure tax dollars don’t go toward promoting a partisan agenda.
“The Ford government continually says one thing and then does another,” he said in a statement. “Going back on restoring oversight on government advertising is yet another example.”
Back in 2017, Sylvia Jones, now the Solicitor General, introduced a private member’s bill aiming to reverse the Liberals’ 2015 changes that she said watered down the auditor general’s oversight.
She noted that in 2004, the Liberal government justified introducing tougher rules by slamming the former Progressive Conservative government’s use of taxpayer money on partisan advertising.
“This issue is a total flip-flop from the Liberal members opposite,” Jones said in 2017.“What’s that line? ‘That was then; this is now.’ What has changed, Speaker? It appears that the premier will only maintain those principles when they are convenient.”