A new Ontario government ad starring famed environmentalist David Suzuki may be an effective way to highlight the threat of climate change, but it would have been vetoed under the province’s old rules, according to the auditor general.
The Liberal government released a new 30-second spot on Wednesday that features Suzuki talking to a theatre full of children about climate change.
"What does climate change mean?" asks the environmentalist. "Simply, that we're in trouble and not enough adults are listening. If we don't act now, the damage could be irreversible. Who will have to live with the consequences? You. So you're going to have to solve it."
The commercial closes by touting the Liberal government’s climate change action plan, which has yet to be released.
However, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says the message wouldn’t have made the cut under the province’s old ad rules. The auditor general can block commercials if they violate the Government Advertising Act, but that legislation was amended by the Liberals last June.
“This ad does not provide viewers with any useful information,” said Lysyk in a statement, which was also shared with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. “Instead, it appears to be designed to create apprehension about the effects of climate change so viewers will be more likely to support Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan.”
“This Plan is mentioned at the end of the spot, but no specific details are provided; viewers must go to the website to find out what this is,” continues Lysyk. “This leads us to conclude that the primary objective of this ad is to foster a positive impression of the government. This ad would not have passed our review prior to the Act’s amendments on June 16, 2015.”
Lysyk warned last spring that the government’s changes to advertising rules would turn her role – which had been to screen proposed ads for traces of partisanship – into that “of a rubber stamp.”
As QP Briefing reported at the time, the government's alterations to the advertising rules didn’t touch bans on using the name, voice or image of an MPP, which had been a source of controversy during the Mike Harris years (see this infamous commercial featuring the former premier).
The name or logo, or even a colour associated with the governing party, also remained forbidden. Those provisions were put in place by Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government in 2004.
The Government Advertising Act sets out that an ad "must not be partisan." However, a section of the act that defined partisan advertising as an item the auditor deems “is to promote the partisan political interests of the governing party” was deleted by a Wynne government budget bill. So was another section setting a standard that an ad’s primary objective must not be to “foster a positive impression of the governing party."
The changes to advertising rules were made official last June. The auditor general then said in August that a new commercial promoting the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan would have been rejected under the old standards.
The Liberal government has released numerous ads since then, including a recent one showing a “typical gamer” learning about retirement – a commercial that pumps up the ORPP. The nearly two-minute, 30-second long spot has more than 250,000 views on YouTube.
The AG's office says the gamer ad was approved with no comments. The watchdog only offers an opinion if the ad would not have been approved under the old rules for government commercials.
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