Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/3/2011 (3841 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Should a government use taxpayer money to tell its citizens about all the good it is doing? Should they be allowed to do it in an election year?
Consider this scenario: In late February, Manitoba Hydro launched a $310,000 media campaign to inform Manitobans about Bipole III, a new transmission line it is building to connect its northern generating stations with southern markets. With more dams coming on line, and concern that a weather event could take down existing transmission lines, Bipole III is greatly needed.
Reliable access to clean hydroelectricity, and more security from catastrophic events. Who could take issue with an argument like that?
Of course, the construction of Bipole III is a bit more contentious than the advertising campaign is letting on. The cost (now estimated at more than $4 billion) and the routing (a circuitous path down the west side of Lake Manitoba) make this one of the province's most intriguing political issues.
The NDP government made a political decision that it would not run Bipole III down the east side of Lake Winnipeg, the shortest route, so that it would not spoil one of North America's last great Boreal forests. The province feared an east-side route would be used by environmentalists to discourage U.S. utilities from buying Manitoba. Political opponents, primarily the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives, claim the province is foolish to spend the additional hundreds of millions of dollars to take the much longer route down the west side of the lakes. Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen has promised to make Bipole III an election issue.
Of course, none of that background is mentioned in the Manitoba Hydro campaign. Majestic, raging rapids, idyllic lakes, robust wildlife and the Hydro-powered glow of Winnipeg at night are the building blocks of these ads. No mention of divisive First Nation politics, threats of blackmail by U.S. environmentalists or opposition mudslinging.
(To be clear, the spots are nowhere near as offensive as, say, the ads created by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to put a green sheen on the Alberta oil sands. One featured an oil company biologist talking about reforesting areas after stripping away all the bitumen. At one point, the biologist stops and giggles as he sees two squirrels playing on a nearby tree. The campaign represents a questionable advertising concept to begin with. The giggling biologist gave it a positively Simponsesque quality.)
The Hydro ads are propaganda, no doubt. But the bigger question is the timing of the ads. We are now seven months away from a provincial election. Could it be that the NDP government is using the financial resources of Manitoba Hydro, a Crown corporation, to circulate feel-good advertisements about Bipole III to mitigate the rhetoric of McFadyen, among others? The simple answer is, well, yes.
The decision to go down the west side of the lakes was political and Hydro certainly has an obligation to tow the government line on this issue, in this case by using its financial resources to inform the public of the positive arguments for this new and costly improvement to its grid. And there certainly is a political value in that for the NDP. Hydro does not mention the words "west side" or "east side" in its campaign; it is merely promoting the idea of a new transmission line, and not where it will be routed. However, this is feel-good advertising, and the entity that ultimately we're supposed to feel good about is the NDP government.
McFadyen may try to make hay out of this campaign, pointing out that it's unfair for a government to the marshal financial resources of a Crown corporation to support a re-election campaign. But McFadyen knows this is a form of unfairness practiced by every party that has ever governed.
The federal Conservative government, for example, has been heartily criticized for spending some $40 million on a campaign to promote "Canada's Economic Action Plan," the stimulus spending program the Tories designed to cushion the blow of the recession. This after the government was warned by its own mandarins that the campaign violated federal rules that prohibit government funds being used for partisan advertising.
No one is entirely sure where government advertising ends and partisan advertising begins. In large part that's because politicians have been using government resources for partisan purposes for generations, and they'd rather leave the line a bit blurry. Remember, today's outraged opposition critic could be tomorrow's minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro. Just think of the possibilities.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.