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How Doug Ford can use taxpayers' dollars to fund Ontario News Now

Ontario's auditor general can do little to stop the new Progressive Conservative government from using taxpayers' dollars to fund the production of partisan TV-news style videos because of weak enforcement, policy experts say.

Weak enforcement allows public funds to be spent on social media videos

Premier Doug Ford's government quietly unveiled Ontario News Now earlier this week, with a minute-long video highlighting Ford's appearances during his first month in office. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Ontario's auditor general can do little to stop the new Progressive Conservative government from using taxpayers' dollars to fund the production of partisan TV-news style videos because of weak enforcement, policy experts say.

Premier Doug Ford's government unveiled its Ontario News Now (ONN) earlier this week, with a minute-long video posted to Facebook and Twitter. It highlighted Ford's appearances during his first month in office, including a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and handshakes with police academy graduates.

There's not much that can be done, except the opposition needs to hold the government to account.— Jonathan Rose, Queen's University

The PCs bill the videos — more are expected — as "timely, exclusive content on the PC government's priorities for the people of Ontario." But critics say ONN is intended to cut out the middleman, namely reporters, by covering the Tories' own political moves and supporting party interests.

The partisan messages are paid for by PC caucus services. The caucus of a recognized party receives funding from the legislature — a separate branch of the province — for administrative staff, research and communication activities that help inform its work. 

In Ontario, the standing orders of the legislature declare that any party with fewer than eight seats loses its status as a recognized party. The PCs stormed to a 76 member majority in the spring election, while the NDP formed the Official Opposition with 40 seats. 

The annual funding the PC and NDP caucuses receive is based on the number of seats each party holds, according to the Ontario Legislative Assembly Act.

"There's not much that can be done, except the opposition needs to hold the government to account," said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"But in a majority government situation that the government's in — it's very difficult to do."

The auditor general has never reviewed partisan ads funded by caucus services under the orders of the Ontario Government Advertising Act, said Duff Conacher, a co-founder of Democracy Watch. 

The problem with caucus services is the rules.- Christine Van Geyn , Canadian Taxpayer Federation

"Those research offices kind of exist in this void of law," he said of caucus services.

"There's absolutely no reason why the auditor general couldn't interpret cabinet office or the office of the premier to include that research office."

He pointed out that ONN videos "can only be exclusive if the cabinet and premier's office are giving them exclusive access in some way, to film it, to use the clips."

"That's another way in which the cabinet office is involved, and that also makes it government advertising even though the caucus office is producing it," said Conacher, who is also a law and politics professor at the University of Ottawa. 

Government Advertising Act

The province's Government Advertising Act was enacted in 2004, in response to partisan advertising by then-premier Mike Harris's PC government, says Rose.

It places strict guidelines on government-funded advertisements, allowing the province's auditor general to determine what constitutes a partisan ad.

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's power to reject partisan ads has been curtailed. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

The original rules were limited to traditional media — newspapers, radio, and TV — before being expanded by Dalton McGuinty's Liberals to include partisan advertising "displayed digitally in a prescribed form or manner," according to the act.

Then, in 2015, the majority Liberals pushed through changes to the oversight rules that ramped up spending on taxpayer-funded advertising in the 2015-16 fiscal year. That bill drastically watered down the auditor general's power to veto ads deemed partisan and serve to promote the party in power. 

"It's an area that regulatory capacity hasn't caught up to, so there's this big vacuum about how we think about, how we regulate and how we control partisan communication by government that falls outside of traditional channels," Rose said.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, at the time, warned the changes would reduce her office to a rubber stamp and could lead to the public paying for partisan advertising.

"The summer is a great time to do this kind of stuff because lots of people are just not paying attention," said Conacher.

"When people are back and paying attention more again, they may slow down."

ONN is fronted by Lyndsey Vanstone who produced similar videos ahead of the Tories' victory in the June 7 election.

Vanstone was then-executive assistant to Ford and his senior communications adviser.

Lyndsey Vanstone fronted the first Ontario News Now video. She previously appeared in videos for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives during the election campaign. (ONN/Facebook)

She is now the deputy director of communication for PC caucus services, the premier's office confirmed to CBC News.

"The problem with caucus services is the rules," Christine Van Geyn, the Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said in email Wednesday.

"There are very few disclosure rules associated with the taxpayer funded caucus services budget, and because politicians of all parties benefit from this money, they have no incentive to change the rules."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this article stated the auditor general has never audited public spending that goes through caucus services, when in fact she has never reviewed partisan ads funded by caucus services.
    Aug 08, 2018 2:07 PM ET

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