I also want to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak. Like Alex, I've been researching and thinking about this topic for many years. I wrote the first book on government advertising and I was involved in the 2002 Auditor General's inquiry on advertising, sponsorship, and public opinion. More recently, I co-wrote a report for Elections Nova Scotia about how government should limit advertising before an election. For 10 years I have been on the provincial Auditor General's committee in Ontario that reviews government advertising.
My comments really are informed by that experience. Coming before this committee, a committee that is studying the subject, I now know what it's like to be a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention. Thank you for giving me that opportunity.
I'll cut to the chase. The changes that are made are, on the whole, welcome amendments. I agree with Professor Marland that there are various ways of seeing the same issue, but on the whole, they are on balance going, I think, in the right direction. What they attempt to do is curtail the impulse of governments of all political stripes to use taxpayers' money to buy voters' favour. They also place adjudication of advertising in the hands of a third party, which I think ensures legitimacy.
Having said that, I think there are some areas that can be improved. In the time I have, I want to talk about three areas: first, the definition of partisanship; second, the very narrow definition of advertising; and third, some issues around the 90-day ban.
Let me preface this by saying that it should be the goal of all governments to limit or prohibit partisan government communications. The Government of Canada has come a long way since Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior in Wilfrid Laurier's government, advertised Canada throughout Europe and described the winters in Canada as “bracing” and “invigorating”—a nose-stretcher, to be sure. After that, prior to the Quebec referendum, the federal government spent massive amounts of money on the Canadian Unity Information Office extolling the virtues of federalism.
I say this because it's not a surprise that for years the Government of Canada has been one of the top 10 spenders among advertisers in the country, and Canada historically has spent more per capita on advertising than any other democratic country. Thankfully, in the last 10 years, post-Gomery, this has changed. I think the governments of both political parties have taken great steps to improve the situation.
Let me move to partisanship. I think the most significant change is around banning partisanship.
In the policy, non-partisan communication is defined as information that is “objective, factual and explanatory”; that is “free from political party slogans, images, identifiers...”; that does not use a colour “associated with the governing party”; and that doesn't include a voice, name, or face of an MP.
These are all things on which I think reasonable people can agree. What is noteworthy is that with one exception—the “objective, factual and explanatory” one—partisanship is defined as something in the absence of things: you can't have party slogans; you can't have party colours; you can't have an MP. Perhaps this negative definition is a result of the inability to clearly define what is partisan. It brings to mind U.S. Justice Potter Stewart's famous line, “I know it when I see it.”
I would have liked to see the policy state positive standards to which government advertising must adhere and give greater latitude to the independent review body, the Advertising Standards Council. I think they should be given greater discretion in that the discretion they have is pretty limited.
The gold standard, in my opinion, is the Government of Ontario's Government Advertising Act of 2004. In its original version, prior to its being amended in 2015, the act placed the burden on the government to defend its use of advertising. In other words, all ads had to inform the public of policies or services, inform about rights, or encourage or discourage social behaviour in the public interest. These explicit goals placed the obligation on the government to demonstrate the need for an ad campaign in addition to demonstrating that it wasn't partisan.
More crucially, a required standard was that it “must not be a primary objective of the [ad] to foster a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity who is critical of the government”. “Feel good” ads that serve no obvious public policy purpose, such, I would argue, as the Canada 150 ads or the economic action plan ads, would fall under that category.
The determination of whether an ad was partisan fell to the advertising review group, as I said, a group of which I was a part.
Prior to its being amended in 2015, the act allowed the Auditor General to determine the context of the ad or advertising campaign, and I want to suggest that context matters enormously. Sometimes a perfectly appropriate government ad can be supplemented by a political party ad that communicates the same thing. In those cases, the government ad is a thinly disguised attempt to leverage party advertising through government advertising.
This was exactly the case with the Ontario retirement pension plan of the Ontario Liberals. This campaign, which ran in 2015, met the standards and was broadcast by a very similar policy of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, changes to the act in 2015 allowed this, and assessment based on context was no longer permitted.
I should say, then, that this kind of advertising, in which party advertising piggybacks on government advertising, would be allowed under your changes. That's something you may want to think about.
The second thing is the scope of advertising. Louise Baird, who spoke before this committee on June 15, said that a “video that is produced and put on our departmental website” is “not considered advertising under the policy”, and of course, Ms. Baird is right. The issue is made clear by the policy on communications and federal identity, which states that government advertising “is defined as any message...paid for by the government for placement in media”. Well, what exactly is “placement”? Without being able to scrutinize government websites, there is a potential for content that is laudatory but that provides no information, not unlike the 24-7 campaign from a previous PMO.
The principle here is simple. There need to be rules in place so that if and when a government's good judgment lapses, that government can be held to account. Internet advertising by government has grown 126% from 2012 to 2015, the last year for which data are available. Virtually all ads in the traditional media of radio, print, and TV feature links to the Internet. If those websites are not covered under the changes, the reviewed ad that the ASC is looking at can simply serve as a way to drive traffic to a government website that does not adhere to the criterion.
In Ontario, the Auditor General reached an agreement with the provincial government that recognized that the link was actually an extension of the ad. We reviewed what we called the “first click”: if the ad took you to a landing page, the first click after that was also reviewable. That was important, because it prevented innocuous government ads from being teasers for non-reviewable partisan ads.
The last thing I want to talk about is the 90-day ban. This is an important improvement on past practice, but the research I've done has shown that governments spend more money in the year preceding an election rather than in the 90 days before it. The 90-day ban may thus have little effect. Moreover, the 90-day ban prior to the general election would not stop governments from advertising during by-elections. If we follow the same principle that advertising is undue influence during an election, surely the same logic must hold true in a by-election.
There are two provinces that have legislation limiting government advertising, and their practice might be instructive for the committee.
Manitoba also has a 90-day rule, but with prohibition during by-elections.
Saskatchewan is more nuanced. Advertising is banned during the election period, which is fixed at 27 days, and for 30 days prior to the election period. In the 90 days prior to the election period, however, the province limits what governments can advertise: only advertisements that inform the public about programs and services are allowed. Moreover, in the 120 days before the election period in Saskatchewan, the government is not allowed to spend more money than it did in the same time frame in the previous year, and as in Manitoba, advertising is banned.
I would urge the committee, therefore, to think about banning advertising during by-elections. With the average campaign in Canada being about 50 days long, this means that the present ban is only for 40 days, on average, before an election. If the next campaign were as long as the last one was, it would only be for about two weeks. That gives a lot of leeway to prime the electorate with government ads.
I think I've used up all my time. I'm happy to take questions on that or anything else. Thanks for your time.