Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political ads out of control

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The federal government's so-called Economic Action Plan could have been a worthwhile endeavour, except for two serious flaws: Almost no one bothered to visit the government website for more information, and even if they had, some of the programs being advertised do not actually exist, at least not yet.

The Canada Jobs Grant, for example, won't be available until next year if negotiations with the provinces succeed. Other advertisements are purely political, such as promoting measures the government is taking to protect the environment and promote Canadian history.

Some programs, however, such as apprenticeship training grants are real and the government's website provides useful information about how applicants can receive cash grants to get valuable training.

The Economic Action Plan thus far, in other words, is a mixed bag of partisan politics and valuable information that is worth disseminating.

It's unclear why the website has received such little interest from Canadians, but it could well be Canadians are becoming conditioned to tuning out government information that isn't focused on immediate results, such as cash for home renovations or basement upgrades to prevent flooding and so on.

The government has spent $113 million on advertising for the action plan in the last four years, which is drawing criticism as both wasteful and unethical, since at least part of the spending serves no legitimate purpose other than to promote the Harper government.

Partisan critics should not be too smug, however, because abuse of government advertising is common across Canada and the political spectrum.

The Manitoba government, for example, has shamelessly abused taxpayers' funds with blatant political advertising. Among many examples, the government purchased a series of ads promoting its export achievements on the eve of the 2007 general election. These were ads that served absolutely no useful purpose, other than to broadcast the NDP's name.

More recently, the Selinger government used public monies to pay for 30-second television spots that boasted "Manitoba has changed a lot over the last decade." It went on to say that the recent budget focused on "what matters most to families," without ever mentioning the increase in the provincial sales tax.

Manitoba Hydro is also promoting its controversial $19-billion development plans in face of stiff opposition.

In British Columbia, the abuse of political advertising has sparked a campaign for legislation that would outlaw the practice.

Indeed, it's past time standards were developed that would prevent ruling parties from abusing their positions -- and the taxpayer -- with advertising that might serve their interests, but does nothing for taxpayers, except pinch their pockets.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 A8

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