Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Liberal ad spending details show need for reform

VICTORIA - Now that the details about government advertising are out, you can see why the Liberals kept them secret.
The Liberals budgeted $12 million for advertising, down from the previous year because - they said - non-essential advertising was banned in the four-month run-up to the election.
But the ads kept on coming through the year, and no one would say what each lavish campaign cost.
The Liberals had reason to be embarrassed. They blew through the $12-million budget, and spent another $7.5 million, keeping the over-run a secret until after the election.
And the big spending was on ads that most looked partisan pitches for the Liberals’ good works.
Remember those  best place to work TV ads? The information released by Finance Minister Carole Taylor reveals they started with a weird goal - "A campaign to inform British Columbians about employment opportunities resulting from the improved economic climate."
C’mon. Was it really necessary to spend $3.8 million to tell British Columbians it’s was a good time to check the 'Help Wanted' section in the newspaper, start a business or hit the boss up for a raise?
The government's tourism ads made slightly more sense - but only slightly.
That campaign cost you $4.4 million. The stated goal was to get British Columbians - and Canadians - to vacation in B.C.
But almost all the ads ran in the province. And if the government was really interested in tourism development, all it had to do was pass the extra cash on to Tourism BC. The Crown corporation has detailed strategies for promoting the province, and needs only money. Another $4.4 million would have made a big difference.
The government didn't give the money to Tourism BC. It tossed it into the pot for a series of ad campaigns that to many people seemed much like the Liberals' election commercials.
And there was the $2.5 million on the best place to go to school, telling people to check a web site, because there were more post-secondary and trades education opportunities than they might think.
It's worth reminding people that there are educational opportunities.
But probably $800,000 in advertising, targeted effectively, would have done the job. The remaining $1.7 million would have funded another 180 post-secondary spaces across the province.
The problem is not just with the campaigns, but the way the Liberals handle the over-spending. They could have tapped the contingency budget,and disclosed the extra spending. They did in other areas. Embarrassing , but open and transparent.
Instead, the public affairs' bureau - part of the premier's office budget - sent bills out to ministries, which hadn't budgeted for any ad expense. One of the Liberal reforms was to fund all advertising out of one central budget.
That had allowed former health minister Colin Hansen to maintain steadfastly that not one penny from the health budget was being spend on ad campaigns.
Until the election year. There was still no money in the budget, but the ministry got a surprise invoice from the premier’s office for $630,000 for ad costs, enough to clear some 170 people off the waiting list for hip replacements.
Of course the NDP governments were just as bad, probably worse. They spent more and were equally partisan.
Government advertising will always be controversial.
But other jurisdictions have tackled the problem. The United Kingdom has had guidelines since 1985 to reduce the risk of partisan, publicly funded advertising intended to help the political prospects of the government in power.
And in fact then B.C. Auditor General George Morfitt recommended similar guidelines for the province in 1996. The NDP did nothing about the recommendations, and the Liberals followed their example.
Guidelines don’t make the issue go away, and there will always be grey areas.
But they would be a start, and at least set standards that guard against the use of taxpayers’ money to promote the interests of the party in power.
Footnote: Taylor deserves credit for releasing the information, which the government had kept secret. She says it’s important for governments to communicate effectively, but plans a review of the advertising efforts over the summer, before the budget is introduced in September.


Anonymous said...

Makes one wonder what the total would be if the cost of taxpayer funded politically appointed communications staff who worked on BC Liberal campaigns were included in the costs.

Will Finance Minister Carole Taylor release those dollar numbers too?

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