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And now the envelope, please

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Back from a winter vacation, I settled back on Sunday afternoon to watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational Golf Tournament on Television. I tuned in to Channel 6, which is an American channel. On at least three occasions, the tournament was interrupted by a Manitoba government advertisement that extolled the value of living in Manitoba because doing so entitled you to some sort of tax credit on tuition fees.

The advertisement concluded with a generic slogan to do with "steady growth" and some other positive economic description. Although I saw the ad at least three times, its efficacy may be measured by how little of it I remembered. Although much of the substance escaped me, I have no doubt about the footnote that stated the ad was a message from the Government of Manitoba.

Watching TV ads that interrupt a program is something we all have learned to accept and live with. Producing television costs money and commercials constitute the biggest source of revenue without which we would be deprived of much desirable television viewing. Notorious commercials are those that occur during the Super Bowl, where the cost to the advertiser is calculated in the millions of dollars per 15-second spot. The Super Bowl ads are usually very well-done and can be entertaining in themselves. Even though the citizens globally pay for the ads by consuming the advertised product, they seldom make one angry.

The government ads have no such redeeming feature. They are not entertaining and are blatant propaganda designed to elicit support for the existing government. Furthermore, the people of Manitoba are obliged to pay for them. One of the worst forms of corruption government can descend to is the use of public money to pay for the promotion of its political program. This is the kind of action that was a distinct and major characteristic of the fascist governments of the 1930s.

The use of public money to support a government politically is a practice most governments will avoid but, sad to say, it does emerge from time to time. It is usually coexistent with a drop in government support as indicated by polling results. The government, and more likely the party bureaucracy, are convinced they should be popular and cannot understand their drooping public-opinion-poll results. They cannot accept the fact the reason for the decline comes from their own inadequacy and identify the problem with the failure of the public to properly understand their good deeds.

The solution, according to party experts, is to concentrate on communication. Since the politicians have failed to communicate satisfactorily, the remedy is for the government to advertise how wonderful it is and to use public money to do so.

It is unlikely the program of government advertising at public expense will solve the problems of the existing NDP government. The public will see through this desperation and will react negatively.

Rather than spend public money to try to salvage its downward slide, it would be preferable to take the advice of a defeated cabinet minister who was briefing his successor in a friendly way. The newly elected minister asked whether the outgoing rival had any advice for him. In a spirit of goodwill, the retiring minister handed the new minister three sealed envelopes and told him that when the going got rough, he was to open the first envelope and follow its direction. When this no longer worked, he was to open the second envelope and use its counsel. Then if that no longer worked, he was to go to the third envelope.

The minister followed his instructions to the letter. When he first seemed to be vulnerable he opened the first envelope and read its contents: It said "blame me." He proceeded to attack his predecessor and got away with it. When this no longer worked he opened the second envelope and read "blame the federal government." He followed this advice and sure enough it worked. But after a while it wore thin and under severe attack he opened the third envelope. With some dismay he read the words "prepare three envelopes."


Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 25, 2014 0

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