Once upon a time, a popular opposition firebrand named Christy Clark stood up in the B.C. Legislature to rip the NDP government for spending tax dollars on shameless, self-promoting advertising.
"People don't want the government to spend 700 grand of their money so they can find out how to access services; people want this government to spend their money so that those services are there for them to access. That's what British Columbians want," Clark railed.
"How many firefighters, how many police officers will not be on the street because [the finance minister] is spending ... on her advertising campaign?"
Fast forward 13 years to the Global TV News Hour and there was Clark, now B.C. Liberal premier, last week holding court for 90 seconds of taxpayer-funded ad time to laud her B.C. Jobs Plan -- even promising that four more weekly installments are on the way.
Governments of all stripes and every level love to advertise, spending our tax dollars to remind taxpayers how wonderful they are. This latest provincial ad campaign is expected to cost $15 million -- in a province where residents are groaning under their tax burden and government is trying to balance the budget.
It's not just the provincial government that spends money like this. The federal Conservative government, while running a $26.2 billion deficit this year, has earmarked $64 million for advertising "public service messages" like its Economic Action Plan and the War of 1812 anniversary. Last year, Ottawa spent $83.3 million.
City halls get into the advertising act too by buying up plenty of column inches of ad space in the local newspapers for various municipal initiatives and events, straying far beyond the ads required under provincial law.
All that advertising to promote how great government is, all paid for by taxpayers.
It's been suggested that government should pass a law forbidding advertising except for statutory or emergency purposes. That option sounds good, but the likely result would be governments simply declaring dozens of questionable "emergencies" in order to loosen the purse strings.
Alternatively, we could continue to let governments advertise all they want, but demand they put a disclaimer at the end of every TV commercial and the bottom of every print ad that simply says: "This advertisement was paid for by the taxpayers of British Columbia,"- - or whatever the relevant jurisdiction is.
This simple statement would give any politician pause before approving a big advertising buy. It would make taxpayers consciously connect the cost of government ads to their taxes. The whole tenor of the ad campaign would change, as elected leaders would need a real reason - besides their own re-election - to spend our money.
At the risk of plagiarizing the 1999 Christy Clark: People don't want the government to spend $15 million of their money so they can find out how to access services; people want this government to spend their money so that those services are there for them to access. That's what British Columbians want.