Commentary: A ‘C’ on the government virtues list (May 3, 2018)

by Dermod Travis,

 

There was a time when it took a new government a few years to pick up the bad habits of its predecessor, the ones that were a factor in that party getting booted from power.

It seems today, the habits can set in a lot faster.

One year in, it’s time for a reality check on how much progress Premier John Horgan and crew have made at “ending partisan waste and opening government up.”

It seems like only yesterday that Horgan, then-opposition leader, was calling then-minister of advanced education Andrew Wilkinson the “minister of propaganda” for his oversight of the B.C. government’s $15 million pre-election advertising budget.

This year’s budget may be smaller, but $11 million still buys a lot of propaganda and the B.C. NDP made a commitment last May to work with the auditor general “to set strong standards for advertising spending.”

Based on a series of answers Finance minister Carole James gave Green party MLA Adam Olsen in March, this one may soon be tagged the mañana pledge.

James told Olsen the government is “in the process of developing new standards right now to ensure that British Columbians have confidence in the process.”

As for any involvement by the auditor general, that still seems to be up in the air.

It’s “one possibility,” James told Olsen.

The public generally fixates on the “in our face” advertising, the campaigns that fall within that $11 million budget, but those dollars represent only a small slice of what’s available to a government to try and shape the public’s mood.

There are also the budgets of Crown corporations, public agencies, universities and colleges.

Examining more than $100 million in advertising billings among the government, 25 Crown corporations, one university and one health authority in 2016/17, two things jump out right away: big dollars, few firms.

There are the disbursement type charges: $1.3 million on social media, promotional items ($3.5 million) and research & polling ($5 million).

But when you look at the pure agency billings, 17 firms billed $53 million and often to more than one arm of government.

On top of their government billings, B.C. Liberal party favourite Kirk & Co. worked for B.C. Hydro as well, Boardwalk Communications (B.C. Transit and Island Health), Cossette Communications (B.C. Pavilion Corporation, Transportation and Investment Corporation and University of B.C.) and Edelman, including Edelman Indonesia, (Industry Training Authority and the Knowledge Network).

The advertising budgets of Crown corporations and public agencies couldn’t possibly be compromised for political purposes, you say. Think again.

In January, Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin reported on a new $945,000 ad campaign by the University of B.C. The campaign’s tagline for each of the students in the YouTube videos: “I go to UBC for a better B.C.”

Given its international reputation, you would have thought the university might have cast a wider net, such as “a better Canada” or planet, particularly given the overuse of “a better B.C.” only months earlier in the NDP’s campaign.

In the party’s platform the three words appear consecutively 32 times.

You won’t find many, if any, NDP friendly advertising firms among the 2017/18 suppliers, but you will in 2018/19.

It’s natural that a government would want to work with firms that are more closely aligned with its vision. Tough to imagine them calling on Mike McDonald – Christy Clark’s former chief of staff – at Kirk & Co. for strategic advice, talented as he might be.

Bringing the auditor general into the picture doesn’t necessarily have to end a government’s prerogative in that area, it simply ensures that government ads are for the government and not the party in power.

To its credit the government has tabled legislation to protect whistleblowers. Strangely, though, they didn’t use the term in their announcement.

On the lobbying front, progress, albeit at a snail’s pace. A two-year ban on lobbying by former office holders is welcome, but retroactive to the last election would have been more welcome.

Worrisome on the freedom of information front.

The government has opted for consultations that seem designed to punt the issue down the road.

“No records found” also seems to be creeping into the government’s lexicon, as are hefty fee charges to discourage prying eyes.

A “virtues list” doesn’t come with a hefty price tag, but voters can exact a heavy price on parties that don’t live up to their lofty promises.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

 

May 3, 2017