TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservative government spent about $13.75 million last year on ads the auditor general believes are partisan, she said Wednesday in her annual report.
That money represents nearly 20 per cent of all government advertising in 2021-22.
Prior to 2015, ads were banned as partisan if the intent was to foster a positive impression of government or a negative impression of its critics, but the then-Liberal government amended the rules in that year.
Now, the auditor general can only veto an ad as partisan if it uses an elected member’s picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party or direct criticism of a party or member of the legislature.
Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk railed against the changes at the time, as did the Progressive Conservatives when they were in Opposition. They promised during the 2018 election to reverse the Liberal rules, but decided otherwise once in government.
Lysyk said in this year's report that two ad campaigns would have been considered partisan under the old rules, including an "Ontario is Getting Stronger" campaign, which ran right before ad restrictions ahead of the spring election came into effect.
"In our view, the purpose of the campaign was to foster a positive impression of the government," she wrote in the report.
"The ads claimed 'Ontario is getting stronger,' 'New highways, homes and public transit are being built for a growing province' and 'Our economy is growing stronger than ever' without context or substantiation."
The ads directed Ontarians to a website for more information, but it lacked detail, Lysyk said.
The government told the auditor's office the ads were meant to "address uneasiness that has grown throughout the pandemic and instil confidence in Ontario’s short and medium-term future."
The other ad campaign Lysyk took issue with was around the fall economic statement. which she said were designed to foster a positive impression of government and lacked context or substantiation.
Lysyk used her report to again call on the government to revert to the old definition of partisan. It declined.
"The government reviews all advertising paid for by the province to ensure it is delivered in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, to maximize value for taxpayers," the Treasury Board said in a response in Lysyk's report.
"The government is maintaining the status quo at this time."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press