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Politicians Hate Government Ads -- Until They're The Government

05/13/2015 03:00 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT
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Not that there's any lack of entries in this category, but you can add government advertising to the list of "things politicians oppose until they're in power."

As the curtain begins to come down on the Lower Mainland's TransLink tax plebiscite, B.C. taxpayers have been reminded what happens when politicians have a hold of our chequebooks during an election campaign. While we scrimp and sacrifice and pay our taxes to ostensibly fund critical services like public safety, health and education; politicians line up to spend it on flashy ads designed to help them get more votes.

It's the way it's always been, apparently.

In opposition in 1999, Christy Clark hammered the NDP government for spending $700,000 in taxpayer money on advertising their budget. "People want this government to spend their money so that those services are there for them to access," Clark said. "How many firefighters, how many police officers will not be on the street because [the Finance Minister] is spending... on her advertising campaign?"

In 2013, the government-opposition roles in B.C. had reversed. Clark's BC Liberal government unashamedly spent a big chunk of its $36-million, taxpayer-funded communications budget on slick TV ads, touting their economic record and jobs plan and laying the foundation for their improbable comeback win.

The opposition NDP -- once the guilty advertiser -- was outraged by this malodorous spending, even launching a petition calling for an end to taxpayer-funded partisan ads.

Sadly, that new New Democrat position seems to have gone the way of the dodo. With both the BC Liberals and NDP firmly supporting the TransLink tax campaign, the provincial parties turned a blind eye to TransLink mayors spending $7 million in taxpayer dollars to win this plebiscite. Not a word of criticism over this blatant misuse of tax money - just a nudge and a wink and a "do-what-you-gotta-do-to-win" attitude, even if it means wasting taxpayer dollars.

This flip-flop seems to happen whenever a new government moves into power. In Ottawa, a government advertising scandal helped bring down the Liberal party a decade ago, much to the delight of the Conservatives. In the decade since, some estimates have those same Tories spending as much as $750 million on taxpayer-funded ads, many of which have promoted their political agenda.

As Johnny Cash sang: that old wheel, it rolls around once more. Unfortunately, it's our wallets that get run over.

In November, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer tried to bring common sense to the issue: "It is a generally agreed upon principle that government should not use its position of influence or public funds and resources to support an electoral campaign," she wrote. "Government spends public money to inform taxpayers about its programs, but citizens should not pay for communications that are of a partisan political nature."

Bellringer recommended that government prohibit partisan political information in government communications, and put together specific guidelines setting out what should or should not be included in ads.

An even tougher approach has been successfully used in Ontario. That province's auditor general, helped by a four-member committee, vets every government ad to ensure there is no partisan content. (It should come as little surprise that the Ontario government is now trying to kill this review process - another example of governments saying one thing and doing another on ads.)

While the Canadian Taxpayers Federation generally chafes at the idea of adding another government committee, it's clear no party, of any political stripe, can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to advertising on our dime. At least not once they form government.

It seems politicians will spend anything to get re-elected, especially when it's taxpayers footing the bill. It's time to put pressure on them to close the chequebook and campaign with their own money -- not ours.

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