New taxpayer-funded ads from the Ontario Liberal government about its plan to cut hydro bills could be considered partisan, the auditor general said Friday.
The two ads, running on radio stations across the province, tell listeners that people will receive an average of 25 per cent off their hydro bills this summer and rate increases are being held to inflation for four years.
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"Ontario has made important investments in clean, reliable energy," the narrator says in one ad. "This has led to hydro bills that have become harder to pay. We've heard you and we're taking action with the fair hydro plan."
The Progressive Conservatives say the purpose of the ads appear to be to raise the government's standing in the eyes of voters, at a time when anger over rising electricity costs has contributed to their decline in the polls.
The ads likely wouldn't have been approved under old government advertising rules, said Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who has said changes the Liberals enacted in 2015 reduced her office to a rubber stamp.
"Under the previous legislation it would likely not have passed because it does convey a positive impression of the current government and it's more like a pat-on-the-back type of advertisement," she said.
A spokesperson for Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault said the ads inform people and direct them to a website where they can learn more about the upcoming changes.
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"The Ontario government has a responsibility to raise awareness and communicate information about programs and services that affect Ontarians," spokesperson Colin Nekolaichuk said in a statement. "This includes informing Ontarians of changes to their electricity bills so that they can use this information to plan for the future as they manage their household budgets."
Lysyk said in her last annual report that she had cautioned the government that changing the rules would end up giving taxpayers the bill for millions of dollars in partisan advertising.
"Sure enough, the government walked right through that open door," she said.
The old rules banned ads as partisan if the intent was to foster a positive impression of government or a negative impression of its critics, but the new rules say an ad is partisan only if it uses an elected member's picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party, or to directly criticize a party or member of the legislature.
Of the approximately $50 million in government ads during the 2015-16 fiscal year, Lysyk said she would have flagged several under the old rules as misleading or self-congratulatory.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown wrote Friday to the president of the treasury board, the department that controls the government purse strings, about the ads.
"Your government has no authority to be spending hard-earned taxpayer dollars on partisan radio and social media ads to promote a plan that has not yet been tabled, debated, and voted on in the legislature," Brown wrote to Liz Sandals.
"I am concerned that these ads serve a partisan purpose that aim to improve the government's standing among the public using taxpayer dollars."
Brown called on Sandals to release the cost of the ad buy.