Do the changes Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government made to their law regarding politically partisan advertising violate provincial and federal election laws and regulations?
I’ve asked the Auditor General of Ontario to request an opinion on this matter from the Chief Electoral Officers of Ontario and Canada, the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the Chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
My concern stems from the Wynne government’s amendments to Ontario’s advertising law passed by her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
In my view, the government approved these amendments so it could run government ads like its recent one promoting its Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which might not have been allowed under the previous law.
The Liberals claim their new law is the only legislation in Canada that bans government-paid politically partisan advertising in newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
In fact, federal and most other provincial election laws prohibit almost all government advertising during elections.
According to Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, under the previous Ontario legislation, government ads couldn’t indirectly criticize a political party, regardless of whether it was provincial or federal.
But in the government’s new legislation, an ad is only considered partisan if it contains the name, voice or image of a member of the government; if it has a party logo or a colour associated with a provincial party.
Lysyk has said the new rules would permit, “free campaign advertising” for the Ontario Liberals, which she no longer has the power to address.
A government ad about Wynne’s provincial pension plan shows a woman jumping across a river while a narrator talks about a “retirement savings gap” for people without a workplace pension.
It has run during the federal election campaign and logically, would have been seen as well by voters in the Simcoe North provincial byelection, held on Sept. 3.
During the federal campaign, Wynne has attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his opposition to her looming pension plan, while federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has praised Wynne’s initiative.
Lysyk has said under Ontario’s previous legislation, she would have highlighted portions of the pension ad “that might be considered more partisan” and “suggested that perhaps the timing of running the ad could be construed as partisan” during a federal election campaign.
It’s my view Wynne’s pension ad can still be classified as “partisan” under the Ontario Elections Act, the Canada Elections Act, and the Broadcasting Act and CRTC Regulations.
According to the Ontario Election Finances Act, “political advertising” is defined as advertising in any broadcast, print, electronic or other medium with the purpose of promoting or opposing any registered party or the election of a registered candidate.
According to CRTC Guidelines for the 2014 Ontario general and the 2015 federal general elections: Licensees shall log as advertising material any paid program, advertisement or announcement of a partisan political character which, including the partisan identification of the sponsor and the party, if any, is two minutes or less in duration.
The Canada Elections Act regulates third parties that engage in election advertising as soon they spend $500 or more.
A third party can be a person or a group, other than a candidate, registered political party or registered electoral district associations of a registered party.
Election advertising is defined as an advertising message transmitted to the public by any means during an election period that promotes or opposes a registered party or the election of a candidate, including one that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party or candidate is associated.
In my view, the cost of the Wynne government’s pension ads should be counted as a campaign advertising expense and contribution in the Ontario byelection, and included in the party and candidate campaign returns, which are subject to spending limits.
They should also be treated as campaign contributions to Trudeau’s federal Liberal party and its Ontario candidates, who under federal legislation must include the costs of anything “used to directly promote or oppose a registered party or its candidates” in their respective campaign returns.
No government’s support of a provincial byelection candidate, or its federal counterpart, should include the ability to spend public money that might violate federal or provincial laws and regulations.
Lysyk can investigate the use of public funds for any matter under her general power to scrutinize government spending, conduct and general compliance with the law.
That’s why I’ve asked her to request an opinion on this issue from the relevant provincial and federal authorities.