04/30/2015 04:05 EDT | Updated 06/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Kathleen Wynne, Auditor General Disagree Over Advertising Rules

OTTAWA - Premier Kathleen Wynne rejects an assertion by Ontario's auditor general that her government is gutting a ground-breaking law designed to keep partisanship out of taxpayer-funded advertising.

The provincial dust-up threatens to undermine efforts by the federal Liberals to capitalize on the national Conservative government's multimillion-dollar addiction to feel-good advertising that has turned into a deluge in this post-budget, pre-election season.

"I believe that having government advertising that is not partisan is extremely, extremely important, so nothing that we are doing is going to change that," the Liberal premier told reporters after delivering a speech in Ottawa on Thursday.

A day earlier, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk ripped into proposed changes to the decade-old provincial law that ensures all Ontario government advertising is pre-screened by an independent panel in her office to scrub out any partisan overtones.

Lysyk said the proposed rewrite would place her office "in the untenable and unacceptable position of approving ads because they conform to the narrow requirements of the amended government advertising act, but may be clearly partisan by any objective, reasonable standard."

Wynne responded that the changes will "broaden" the ground-breaking legislation by allowing the auditor to assess digital media campaigns.

"And we've said the legislation needs to be modernized because the fact is that we need to make sure that we are talking about partisanship — and that we're not talking about red apples or red bricks, which sometimes have become an issue in terms of advertising that we have wanted to put forward."

The provincial Liberals circulated a video montage to reporters of seemingly niggling corrections imposed by the auditor general's office on past ads, while contrasting them to more blatantly partisan government promotions that featured former Ontario premier Mike Harris pitching his Conservative policies directly to the camera.

Wynne's defence goes to the heart of the issue about self-promoting government ads: What's perceived as partisan is often in the eye of the beholder.

Ontario's system has been held up as a model that other governments should follow, because it gives an independent, non-partisan panel of experts the final say on what's permissible.

It has been cited repeatedly by federal Liberals who, like the federal NDP, are upset by the tens of millions of dollars of upbeat, Tory-blue, Harper government ads funded from the public purse.

Liberal MP David McGuinty, the brother of former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty who brought in the ad law in 2004, has a private members' bill before Parliament that would create a similar federal vetting system.

David McGuinty has frequently praised Ontario's system in interviews promoting his bill. He was not immediately available to comment on Wynne's proposed changes.

Federal New Democrats pounced on the Ontario developments, issuing a release linking Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals to Wynne's government in Ontario and claiming Liberal reforms are only aimed at the actions of other parties.

There appears to be little prospect of changes to the federal advertising system under the current Conservative government, which says its ads all conform to Treasury Board guidelines and are designed to inform Canadians of important policy measures.

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