Harper-style ads carry on in B.C.

B.C. Views with Tom Fletcher

By now you’ve probably seen the provincial government ads, on TV or Facebook, with cute children lined up for a footrace at their school track meet.

They are interspersed these days with ads urging people to sign up for trades training, an extension of the “B.C. Jobs Plan” blitz that surrounded Premier Christy Clark before the 2013 election.

Not yet on TV, but waiting in the wings, are exciting new exemptions from B.C.’s property transfer tax (for buyers of new homes only) and expanded Medical Services Plan premium assistance, which will be pitched mainly to seniors. Both measures were announced in the February budget.

That’s public service advertising, explained a stone-faced Andrew Wilkinson, minister responsible for the wave of government ads that will crest next spring. The track meet spot is to remind parents of kids born after 2006 that they can receive a $1,200 grant by setting up their children’s Registered Education Savings Plan at an eligible bank or credit union.

The TV spot for the education grant has a confident narrator speaking as the plucky multicultural kids begin their sprint: “B.C.’s plan to protect Canada’s strongest economy is working. Balanced Budget 2016 means we can keep taxes low and invest in B.C. families.”

They used a male narrator, I suppose so it wouldn’t sound too much like a Christy Clark campaign speech broadcast at taxpayer expense.

This grant program is a leftover from the Gordon Campbell years, when the province banked $1,200 per child from its natural gas windfall on behalf of kids born after 2007. The Clark government expanded eligibility by a year and has made a series of announcements as the money was doled out directly to parents.

The ads are working, Wilkinson assured reporters. Monitoring has shown a “substantial increase” in parents signing up to receive the grant.

Two cheers. With the help of sophisticated marketing, the B.C. government is able to give money away with brisk efficiency, as they did with the rebate to parents in the midst of the last teachers’ strike.

The Trudeau Liberal government has begun to rein in federal government advertising, which grew to new heights with the Stephen Harper government’s “Economic Action Plan,” the model for Clark’s blue-tinted “Jobs Plan” series.

Federal Treasury Board President Scott Brison has started with a ban on taxpayer-funded ads in the three months preceding a scheduled federal election. His “interim” measures also include banning the use of party colour schemes in taxpayer-funded ads, and promoting programs that don’t yet exist.

Wilkinson declared that the B.C. Liberals had not stooped to that level, as the Harper Tories did with a proposed program to retrain unemployed people.

“Our advertisements are fact-based,” he said. “They’re based on existing programs that have been budgeted, and they’re designed to engage British Columbians.”

The Trudeau government has not yet delivered on its election promise to appoint an independent advertising commissioner, to work out of the federal Auditor General’s office. It’s unfortunate that yet another expansion of the bureaucracy is needed to keep politicians’ hands out of the till, but we seem to have reached that point in Canada.

There have been no such reforms proposed for B.C., or as it is currently known, “Canada’s strongest economy.” At least we’ve been spared the bill for boasting about “The Best Place On Earth” in recent years.

The B.C. NDP has advocated an Auditor General-run system for keeping partisan politics out of government advertising.