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Ontario auditor general, opposition warn about leeway in revised advertising act

Ontario government still trying to slip partisan advertising past taxpayers despite amendment to bill, critics say
May 26, 2015
By Rob Ferguson

The Liberal administration could still get taxpayers to bankroll partisan ads under a new amendment to the Government Advertising Act, Ontario’s auditor general and opposition parties warn.

Facing criticism that it plans to “gut” the 2004 law by removing the auditor’s discretion as to what is partisan, the government proposed Tuesday to prohibit any ad that “directly identifies and criticizes a recognized party” or MPP.

Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said the change leaves plenty of leeway for Premier Kathleen Wynne or any future government to unleash ads targeting any other groups or organizations opposing it.

“With all the (school) negotiations going on ... if they wanted to put out an ad critical of teachers, they could do it,” she told the Star.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Finance Minister Charles Sousa maintained “we are against government using taxpayer dollars for partisan advertising. That was our position in 2004 and that is our position today.’

But opposition parties raised the spectre of ads aimed at convincing Ontarians about the merits of the proposed controversial sale of a 60-per-cent stake in Hydro One, or slamming the Harper government in the looming fall election campaign.

“The intent of the legislation will be abused and it weakens what (former Liberal premier) Dalton McGuinty had set out to do over a decade ago,” said Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton).

”It’s alarming Kathleen Wynne is willing to go so far to benefit the Liberal Party of Ontario,” added New Democrat MPP Catherine Fife (Kitchener-Waterloo).

“She’s not just leaving the door open for Harper-style ads, she’s kicked it off the hinges.”

Deputy premier Deb Matthews has said the government wants more “clarity” on the definition of partisan ads in the law, which now states an ad is inappropriate if it promotes “the partisan political interests of the governing party.”

Under a new definition of partisan that Lysyk warned would “gut” the act, the law would ban ads using the name, voice or image of an MPP or cabinet member, the name or logo of a party or party colours “to a significant degree.”

While the government says the existing law has been too strictly enforced, Lysyk insists those new criteria rule out her office’s long-time consideration of political context, the use of self-congratulatory messages or factual accuracy.