Thursday, June 30, 2005

Liberals kept multi-million ad budget over-runs secret

VICTORIA - Somebody hung Carole Taylor out to dry in her first big appearance as finance minister.
It was mostly a good news announcement down in the underground Press Theatre at the legislature. The Public Accounts - the final tally of the last fiscal year ‘s results - showed a record $2.6-billion surplus, a big payment on the debt and the fastest growing provincial economy last year. All in all, pretty upbeat.
But the numbers hadn’t changed much since the budget, so not much of the information was new or surprising.
And the journalists had some waiting questions.
All through the last year the Liberals refused to say how much of your money they were spending on those slick ad campaigns saying what a great job they were doing. All the information would be in the year-end Public Accounts, they promised.
Everyone knew that wasn’t true. The accounts tell you an ad firm got $2 million, or $20 million, but they don’t reveal the cost of specific campaigns - like the government ad blitz that reminded you that the Olympics are coming.
The people in government paid to worry about such things could have anticipated tough questions for Taylor about the promised ad spending information.
Especially because that morning Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer had written about “potential embarrassment” in the numbers.
“Rumours persist that the Liberals, in their enthusiasm to tell the public about the great job they were doing, overspent the advertising budget,” wrote Palmer. “They may have found some way to hide it. But that's no way for Taylor to begin her time as finance minister.”
If you’re working for the minister - or the government - you should anticipate a problem here. Taylor is certain to be standing in front of cameras, facing difficult questions.
But when the time came, she didn’t have the answers.
Palmer was right. The Liberals had budgeted $12 million for advertising under the Public Affairs Bureau, in the premier’s office. That was down from the previous year, they said, because of the new ban on non-essential advertising in the four months before an election.
Partway through the year, Campbell and company suddenly decided that they needed to spend a lot more money on advertising. You had to be told B.C. was the best place on Earth, over and over and over.
The government could have announced that, and tapped the contingency budget for the extra $7.5 million in ad money.
But that would have meant acknowledging the over-spending before the election. So instead the premier’s office sent bills out to other ministries to cover the over-run.
That looks sneaky. And it shatters the already dubious claim that none of the advertising spending comes at the expense of patients, or students. The health ministry got a bill that it hadn’t expected, because the premier’s office wanted to spend more on ads. That’s money that could have paid for more hip surgeries.
Taylor struggled with the questions, defending the ads as necessary to encourage investment, suggesting people don’t want to know what each campaign costs and promising to look at the issue.
Two hours later, she committed to releasing the information within the next couple of days.
It was a good recovery, and a good start for Taylor’s tenure as finance minister. She put the principle of openness about how the government spends your money first, and ended the slippery secrecy around ad spending.
But a lot of questions remain.
Taylor has to wonder why no one in government thought it might be good to warn her this was an issue, so she could prepare. (And she has to wonder why she ended up explaining dubious decisions taken eight months ago in the premier’s office.)
And taxpayers have to wonder why the Liberals abandoned openness, and the principles behind their ban on pre-election advertising, and spent millions of your money on feel-good ads, all the while keeping the spending spree a secret.
Footnote: ``What this government does with taxpayers' money, wasting it on propaganda like this, is obscene. With children on surgical waiting lists, why should they be spending anything on advertising?'' Nope, not a cranky New Democrat on the latest scandal. That’s how Gordon Campbell felt about government ad campaigns when he was in opposition.

No comments: