B.C. auditor says tougher guidelines required to monitor government advertising

Auditor says B.C. budget ads appear political

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s auditor general says political partisanship appears to have crept into taxpayer-funded government advertising, prompting her call Friday for tougher monitoring guidelines.

Carol Bellringer said she called Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for the advertising program, to her office for a meeting this week after viewing the Liberal government’s ad campaign highlighting the surplus budget.

She said an ad discussing the government’s balanced budget and a proposed cut to medical premiums appeared to exceed guidelines for information that should be included in public communications.

Bellringer said she told Wilkinson the commercial that mentions a balanced budget and the proposed MSP cut is political in nature and beyond what should be included in government messages.

Bellringer said she pointed out to him that government was advertising a budget that had not been passed by the legislature and highlighting MSP cuts that wouldn’t take effect until next year.

“If that particular ad met the guidelines, then (the government) needs to change the guidelines,” she said.

Bellringer said her meeting with Wilkinson was constructive and he was responsive to her concerns.

A November 2014 report from Bellringer’s office recommended the government establish policy that “explicitly prohibits the use of partisan political information in public government communications,” and provides guidelines on what should or should not be included in government communications

The report also recommended adherence to the policy.

“In B.C., it’s neither a law or a regulation,” said Bellringer. “It’s an internal guideline.”

She said she was not planning to conduct a further audit or investigation into the matter to ensure guidelines are being met.

Last week, Vancouver lawyers David Fai and Paul Doroshenko filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the government and the Liberal party alleging misuse of taxpayer dollars for partisan advertising.

The notice of claim in B.C. Supreme Court alleged the government spent taxpayer dollars on advertising that enhanced the B.C. Liberal Party’s image while promoting the province. The allegations have not been proven in court.

Wilkinson responded to the lawsuit last week on behalf of the government, saying in a statement that it uses the ads to inform the public about important services and programs including the opioid overdose crisis that killed more than 900 people last year. 

He said the government has worked with the auditor general to ensure information campaigns are fact-based, inform the public and adhere to policies that state no public funds should be used for political advertising.

The New Democrats said Friday Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal party should repay the $15 million in tax dollars the government budgeted for the ads following February’s budget and prior to the May 9 election.

(“The auditor general) has said these ads are political in nature,” said NDP critic Selina Robinson. “It’s not appropriate use of tax dollars and the way I read that, the way the NDP reads that, … the way British Columbians read that is that money belongs to the people of B.C.”

Wilkinson was not available for an interview Friday, but in a statement said: “The auditor general provided a perspective on government advertising. She is not planning an audit of government advertising and she suggested that the existing guidelines around advertising be revised in the foreseeable future.”

The latest round of government ads were set to expire Friday. The official election call is April 11.

 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press