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Tories ‘reviewing’ campaign pledge to tighten ad rules

The Progressive Conservatives have no immediate plans to bolster government advertising rules despite mounting opposition to Premier Doug Ford’s taxpayer-funded ads attacking federal carbon pricing.

“We’re reviewing it … but right now we’re focused on priorities such as the increased investment in health care and education,” Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said Wednesday.

“There’s a lot to review. We’re busy,” said Bethlenfalvy.

“We’re committed to making the public aware,” he said, referring to Ford’s controversial 30-second spot unveiled Monday that targets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon scheme.

The commercial, which is in heavy rotation as part of a $30-million PC blitz, shows nickels pouring out of a gas pump nozzle, heating vents and supermarket shelves to illustrate how the levy will affect fuel and food prices.

Before their election last June, the Tories promised to strengthen the Government Advertising Act — which had been watered down in 2015 by the previous Liberal administration — to return veto power to the auditor general over ads deemed partisan.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said “it’s absolutely disgraceful” the governing party isn’t keeping that pledge.

“It’s not in their interest to make the change that they promised they were going to make,” said Horwath. “They’re putting it on the back burner so they can squeeze everything they can out of the public dollar for partisan purposes when it comes to advertising.”

On Monday, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s office said the carbon-pricing ad “would not have passed the auditor general’s review under the former version of the Government Advertising Act because it doesn’t include all the relevant facts.”

“And it criticizes another level of government while putting the Ontario government in a positive light,” said Christine Pedias, Lysyk’s director of corporate communications and government advertising review.

Until former premier Kathleen Wynne amended the legislation four years ago, the auditor could vet government advertising for factual accuracy, tone and context, and rule whether it was politically partisan.

In an unusually uniform chorus, the editorial pages of the Star, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun have denounced Ford for spending public money on a political crusade.

“Our money, more lies,” was the print edition headline Tuesday’s lead Star editorial blasting the ad as “spectacularly misleading” because it doesn’t mention the rebates being returned to Ontarians by Ottawa.

“Doug Ford’s feel-bad movie of the summer,” read the Globe editorial’s headline Tuesday, charging the spot was “misdirection worthy of a Las Vegas illusionist” and “an unapologetic partisan ad (that) … erases the line between party and government.”

“Ford’s party should pay for partisan ads,” said the Sun on Wednesday, noting “when they were in opposition, the Progressive Conservatives said they wouldn’t do this” and castigating the them for the “self-inflicted wound.”

In the Globe on Wednesday, the Ontario directors of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation — which supports Ford’s court challenge against the carbon levy — slammed him for the commercial.

“The court battle is the wheat; the recent slew of taxpayer-funded provincial ads criticizing the tax is the chaff,” Christine Van Geyn and Jasmine Pickel, wrote, concluding, “keep the wheat, cut the chaff.”

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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