Politics

Liberals announce new rules to limit government advertising

The federal government will no longer be able to advertise policy measures that have not yet been adopted by Parliament under new rules designed to curb partisanship in taxpayer funded ads.

Liberals have asked the auditor general to audit 'the effectiveness' of new government ad rules

Treasury Board President Scott Brison says he is following up on an election promise 1:33

New measures to scrub self-serving and partisan government communications will take effect immediately, says Treasury Board President Scott Brison — but that doesn't mean the Liberals will put the brakes on federal ad spending.

The new "interim" safeguards include banning all government ads within three months of a fixed election date and barring the government from advertising policies that have not yet been passed by Parliament.

"For the very first time we are defining non-partisan communications in policy to avoid any potential confusion, misinterpretation, or abuse," Brison told a news conference Thursday, promising ads that are "objective, factual and represent a legitimate public service announcement."

"We just want to make it absolutely clear that we are ending the ability for any government, current or future, to use tax dollars to fund what are partisan or quasi-partisan ads."

The former Conservative government earned years of criticism for its aggressive Tory-blue branding that melded party and policy, sloganeering and persuasion, in one seamless, whole-of-government campaign under the "Economic Action Plan" motif. The ubiquitous EAP signage still dots the country.

The former Conservative government blanketed the country and the airwaves with its Economic Action Plan logos. The new Liberal government is revising the rules for government advertising. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Those Conservatives came to office in 2006 riding public anger over the Liberal sponsorship scandal, an advertising scandal that resulted in criminal convictions and a public inquiry.

The new government policy covers everything from the federal identity program (no more "Harper Government" in official communications) to public opinion research and barring party-hued colour schemes and the images, voices or names of MPs or senators in ads.

More complaints about government ads

The 2015 Liberal election platform promised to create an advertising commissioner, housed in the federal auditor general's office, to review all government ads, but Thursday's interim measures fell short of that commitment.

Instead, the government will pay $65,000 annually to have Advertising Standards Canada — the private ad industry's self-regulating body — review all government ads.

Brison said the auditor general has been asked to audit the program and that feedback will be used to draft legislation entrenching the changes at some future date.

"As with all our audits, final decisions regarding scope will be made in light of the [office of the auditor general's] mandate, the existing audit schedule, and available resources," spokesperson Ghislain Desjardins said in an email to CBC News.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison didn't specify Thursday how much government spending on advertising would be appropriate, but new rules and review mechanisms are intended to steer it away from partisan goals. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards at Advertising Standards Canada, said in an interview they expect to handle between 50 and 60 government ads each year, in English and French.

"It'll be done by the same (three) staff that currently reviews complaints under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards in our Toronto and Montreal office," said Feasby.

Ads will be reviewed twice — in the planning stage and again after production but before airing. If the ASC determines they breach the new standards, Treasury Board will withhold funding, said Brison.

Political advertising is not part of the ASC's mandate but it does handle increasing numbers of public complaints over government ads.

"In the last few years we've certainly gotten more," said Feasby.

Focus on 'public benefit'

Jonathan Rose, a political communications specialist at Queen's University who has served on the Ontario government's ad vetting panel, called the policy measures "a great step forward in reforming federal government advertising."

He's comfortable with the ASC's role but eventually would like to see the vetting done through an office that's accountable to parliament.

Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University who has extensively researched government communications, said the policy changes are long overdue.

The Conservatives spent $761.5 million on government ads from 2006 through March 2015 — not including last spring's pre-election bonanza — and the Liberals are not signalling they'll shut off the taps.

The first Liberal budget promised $221 million in annual cuts on professional services, travel and government advertising. But Brison did not mention ad budget cuts Thursday.

"I don't want to get into the mug's game of saying what is the appropriate level (of spending)," Brison said.

"In terms of the overall dollar value, I think the most important thing is we focus on the principles that government advertising needs to actually provide public benefit."

Treasury Board President Scott Brison explains new rules and a monitoring process for taxpayer-funded government ads 6:11

Marland said federal advertising concerns cross party lines and go straight back to the sponsorship scandal of the 1990s. In fact, Brison was part of a previous Liberal effort to clean up the ad game when, as public works minister, he delivered the 2003-04 government advertising annual report with a pledge to "ensure that Canadians get the most benefit possible from government of Canada advertising."

Almost a billion dollars in taxpayer-funded ads later, that clean-up begins again.

"It would have been nice to see (these changes) a long time ago," said Marland, the author of "Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control."

Key changes

Here are the highlights of Brison's announcement Thursday:

  • Advertising Standards Canada, the self-regulating watchdog over private advertising, will be contracted to keep an eye on government ads to ensure they meet the new rules.
  • All ad campaigns costing more than $500,000 must be vetted by the ASC. Less costly campaigns may be referred, and public complaints will be assessed against the new policy.
  • Government ads must be objective, factual and explanatory.
  • They cannot use political party slogans, images or identifiers.
  • They cannot use a primary colour associated with the governing party in a dominant way, unless the item in question is commonly depicted in that colour. For example, the Liberal government can use the Canadian flag even though it is Liberal red, and Mounties in red serge.
  • Ads must avoid using the name, voice or image of any minister, MP or senator.
  • Ads cannot tout government initiatives that have yet to gain parliamentary approval.
  • Government ads will be banned in the 90 days leading up to a fixed federal election date.
  • Ads are identified by either department name or "Government of Canada". This would end the former administration's habit of attributing programs to the "Harper Government."

With files from CBC News