Ontario’s attack ads slide past federal rules

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Ontario’s attack ads slide past federal rules


Doug Ford’s new wave of TV and radio ads attacking the federal carbon pricing scheme are exposing a hole in the laws covering political advertising in this country — a hole the size of a large, gas-guzzling vehicle.

Provincial governments are not factored in as players in any rules governing spending on political ads at the federal level, so technically and legally, Ontario’s premier has more freedom to fight Justin Trudeau on the ad front this year than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer does.

The same goes for new Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, or any of the other Conservative premiers lined up against Trudeau at the first ministers’ table. If they decide to form a united Conservative advertising front for Scheer and against Trudeau, the ad-spending limits in the federal election go out the window.

Trudeau’s government has tightened up election-advertising rules since the last campaign, which include spending limits to cover all parties and even third parties from June 30 right through to election day in October.

For instance, from June 30 until the formal kickoff of the election — the new pre-campaign period — political parties can spend up to $1.5 million, while third parties can spend $1 million. Sources have told the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau that the new wave of Ford ads likely cost the Ontario treasury in the “high seven figures.” To put that in perspective, that would mean roughly half of the $18 million or so the Liberals and Conservatives each spent in total on radio and TV ads over the epically long 2015 federal election.

“Third-party requirements in the Canada Elections Act do not apply to provincial governments’ advertising campaigns,” a spokesperson said. As far as Elections Canada is concerned, “if Parliament intended to restrict the advertising and other activities of provincial governments, it would have stated so explicitly in the Canada Elections Act.”

It did not. The new electoral-reform legislation, Bill C-76, makes no mention of provincial governments. It does contain new ad-reporting requirements for Facebook and other social-media giants, and much attention has been paid to Google’s decision to simply opt out of running political ads altogether rather than try to comply with the new regime.

Provincial governments don’t even need to opt in or out, though.

So Trudeau’s biggest advertising headache in the next campaign may not be Canada Proud (a third party) or a flurry of Facebook advertising from federal rivals. Come June 30, at least, Liberals and all federal parties, as well as third parties advocating on their behalf, will be on a level playing field. Except for the provincial governments.

At least one poll has already shown that people object to taxpayers’ dollars being used in Ford’s advertising campaign against the carbon pricing. Ontario’s auditor general has also weighed in, saying the ads would have been prohibited under the old provincial laws banning partisan advertising on the public dime.

(Those laws were watered down by Ontario’s previous Liberal government, leaving Ford’s government free to wage a multimillion dollar ad war not against its provincial enemies, but against its federal one. That’s either ironic or just bad timing for Liberals.)

Defenders of Ford’s $30 million ad campaign say that it’s no different than any government promoting its policies and programs — much like the ads that Rachel Notley’s former government in Alberta launched in defence of pipelines, or the ones the Trudeau government uses to promote the child tax benefit.

But as one official in the Ontario auditor general’s office told the Star this week, the carbon price ads aren’t just pro-Ontario, but anti-Ottawa. “It criticizes another level of government while putting the Ontario government in a positive light,” said Christine Pedias, director of corporate communications and government advertising review for the auditor general.

This isn’t the first time that the federal government and many of the provinces have been of different political stripes. Canada can withstand that kind of tension, and even benefit from it.

What is new to the dynamic is how vociferously some provinces, including Ford’s, are intent on the political defeat of the ruling federal government, and working actively and openly for that cause. If the provincial Conservatives add their advertising spending to the campaign of the Scheer Conservatives, that would be new territory — uncharted and uncovered by any election rules.

Will provincial citizens go along with any plan to put their tax dollars into play during the federal election? Perhaps not, but there’s no law against it.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt





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