OTTAWA — Opposition MPs are calling on the Conservatives to change a policy that allows them to flood the airways with government advertising during byelections but not during general elections.
"It would be very inappropriate to be running government ads — that are basically self-promoting the Conservative party" during byelections, NDP Ethics critic Charlie Angus told The Huffington Post Canada Tuesday. "That would give you an enormous advantage. You couldn't do that in an election. Why could you do that in a byelection?"
Several Canadians told HuffPost that they saw Government of Canada ads for the Tories' recently announced family tax cut on television during the campaign for the byelections held Monday in the Ontario riding of Whitby-Oshawa and the Alberta riding of Yellowhead.
The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada states that the only government advertising permitted during general elections is legally required public notices, alerts for health, safety or environmental dangers, and employment or staffing notices.
All other government advertising must be held off from the day the writ drops to the day a newly elected government is sworn into office. But, as HuffPost discovered, there are no rules governing byelections.
Some MPs are okay with that.
Conservative MP John Barlow said he sees no problem with the current rules.
"I think Canadians want to know how their tax dollars are benefiting them. And the government is going to be the ones to tell them. The media doesn't tell them, at least not in a positive light," he said.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rob Clarke said he thinks it is important for the government to reach out to people and let them know what programs are available to them. "I don't think [the ads] have a partisan tone," he said. "[But] I don’t watch TV."
Liberal MP David McGuinty said the government is currently "cheating."
"You can't continue to use public resources [in this way]," he told HuffPost. "You either do or don't have a fair level playing field."
He introduced a private member's bill that establishes an arms-length advertising commissioner to review and approve government ads to ensure they do not promote partisan political interests of the governing party.
His bill is modelled on legislation that his brother, former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, introduced for the province in 2004 — the first and only law of its kind in the country. According to the MP's bill, the commissioner, who would work out of the auditor general's' office, would take into consideration factors such as the timing of the ads, the content and even the colours featured.
Years ago, McGuinty said the Ontario auditor general was presented with an ad that was going to run to promote tourism in Ontario. "In the ad was somebody in a bicycle touring around and the bicycle was red, and the auditor general sent it back and said no red bikes, colour of the governing party, go back and do it again."
McGuinty’s bill, however, doesn't include any references to byelection spending.
"It's an omission," he said, adding that he would look at amending his bill, although it is unlikely to pass before the next election.
Jonathan Rose, an associate professor of Political Studies at Queen's University who is also a member of the Ontario auditor's review panel of government advertising, told HuffPost that governments should not be using taxpayers money to fund partisan ads that should rightly be paid for by a political party.
He is particularly troubled by the recent family tax cut ad — or, as the government refers to it, the 'Helping Canadian Families Prosper Action Plan' ad — for a program whose benefits are, as the commercial notes, "measures subject to parliamentary approval."
"It's a problem because it conflates the interest of the party with the interest of the government," Rose said.
This isn't the first time the Conservatives have advertised measures that have yet to be passed by Parliament. Last year, Advertising Standards Canada the took the government to task for advertising a program that didn't exist yet: the Canada Job Grant.
After those ads appeared, Angus of the NDP said, he received calls from unemployed constituents asking about the job grant and he had nothing to tell them.
"Government advertising has become a war chest for the Conservative agenda, for the Conservative Party, so we have seen misleading advertising, advertising for things that haven't even happened," he said.
In the book "Publicity and the Canadian State," Rose notes that since the Tories came to office in 2006, government advertising has more than doubled. The government's own figures show it has spent more than $617.6 million on advertising since 2006.
"And this is all leading up to an election year. We are going to see this abuse of taxpayers' dollars expand exponentially as they try to carpet bomb the airways in the lead-up to the next election — none of which they are going to count as electoral spending," Angus predicted.
Rose writes that before the March 2011 budget, the Tories spent an estimated $53 million on advertising their economic action plan — a budget document that was understood to be the Tories next election platform should the minority government fall.
Not only was the media buy enormous — Rose compares it to the $23.5 million spent on the H1N1 health pandemic that year — but it also included $5 million for prime time spots on shows such as Hockey Night in Canada and the Oscars.
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