Mr. David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Lib.)
moved that Bill C-544, An Act to amend the Auditor General Act (government advertising), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, my bill, which is supported by the Liberal Party of Canada, by my leader, and by my colleagues, is an attempt to increase confidence and to drive up trust in our Canadian democratic institutions and the way in which government as a whole operates. It is about accountability. It is about value for scarce taxpayer dollars. It is about helping Canadians have more confidence in the way we collect their hard-earned dollars and deploy or spend them on their behalf.
This bill, Bill C-544, is about amending the Auditor General Act to appoint an advertising commissioner to oversee government spending on advertising.
Everyone in this House, from all parties, I have heard, has heard from countless Canadians who are concerned about what can only be described as wasteful advertising spending. It is time to bring Canada's advertising rules into the 21st century, and the appointment of an advertising commissioner, as in other jurisdictions, would provide accountability for all Canadians. This legislation, should it be passed, and I am always hopeful that we can get all-party support in this regard, would apply to all future governments of any political stripe.
It is important to remind Canadians that this bill would permit legitimate advertising. There is a role and a purpose for government advertising. I will come to the details in a moment. What would be expressly prohibited, however, is the kind of partisanship we have seen, which infuses federal government advertising and has for the past nine years under the Conservative government. The common look and feel of government advertising is identical to the common look and feel of partisan political Conservative Party advertising and is happening at the same time as the government uses public resources for federal government advertising.
It is important to remove partisanship from federal government advertising, because it is anti-democratic. When public resources are used to try to increase the chances for political success in Canadian society, particularly only several months away from a national election campaign, it is unfair. When I described this bill to a group of grade 5 students recently, one of the students, a 10-year old, put up a hand and said, “To me, it looks like it is cheating”. It is hard not to agree with that simple description. It is about using public resources and harnessing them for an unfair advantage for a sitting government.
The other reason partisanship has to go is because we are now hearing increasingly from experts and from good, front-line, hard-working, dedicated public servants that this kind of advertising compromises the neutrality and objectivity of public servants and the public service. More and more senior managers are being compelled, forced, to take actions that they know are favourably disposed toward the party in power at the expense of the neutrality and objectivity they signed up for when they decided to become good public servants.
Look at any website operated by the federal government and take a look at the colours. Then go to the Conservative Party of Canada website and take a look at the colours there. This partisanship issue is one that every member in the House of Commons knows cuts to the bone of fairness and accountability.
There has been unanimous opposition to the government's continued advertising. Let us look at some of the headlines.
I will start with the Toronto Star: “Tory ad blitz goes simply too far”.
The Globe and Mail: “How partisan Conservative ads undermine the rule of law”.
The Canadian Press: “Cabinet secrecy blocks rationale behind government's advertising slogan”.
The National Post: “Canadians growing tired of [government's] Economic Action Plan call government ads 'propaganda' in recent survey”.
These draw heavily on eight polls conducted by the government's own Department of Finance.
It is also important to always juxtapose choices made by governments in the way they spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars with real needs in Canadian society.
We know that the current Conservative government has spent some $780 million, likely more by now, on advertising since its arrival. Let us take a look at some of the forms of advertising it has pursued.
The Conservative government paid over $12,000 per train car to shrink-wrap GO trains in downtown Toronto with Conservative blue plastic shrink wrap that had the slogan “economic action plan” splattered all over them. The Conservatives call that a message. Riders on GO Transit call it propaganda. The Conservatives spent $12,000 per car.
Let us take a look at one of the more egregious examples that I think highlights the need to take action in this area. The government has compelled municipalities and provinces around the country to spend $30 million to put up 9,850 billboards. We have now learned, through access to information requests and through working with municipalities, that municipalities were not able to get their federal infrastructure funding dollars unless they met a contractual condition, which was to put economic action plan billboards at the side of every project.
The federal government went to the provinces and said that it wanted a fed-prov agreement. Then it went to the cities involved and said that if they wanted any money, they needed to put up a billboard at their expense. That was $30 million for 9,850 billboards.
Let us talk about what that $30 million might do for Canadians at a time when there are scarce resources and so many credible needs in Canadian society.
Thirty million dollars buys 15 MRI machines. It pays for 500 registered nurses' salaries for one year or over 900 personal support workers for home care for one year. It pays for 10,000 hip, knee, and cataract surgeries. It pays for 4,250 insulin pumps for kids who are coping with type 1 diabetes and cannot afford the pumps.
It pays for 300 affordable housing units. It pays for one million bus passes for our seniors on pensions. It pays the tuition fees for 5,000 students. It pays for student jobs for 9,000 students over the summer.
Thirty million dollars pays for 15,000 doses of chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients fighting their heroic battles and waiting for their treatments. It pays for 46,500 injections to treat osteoporosis at a time when our aging population is showing more and more the effects of arthritis and aging.
Thirty million dollars also pays for 20 million meals at the school breakfast programs for hungry kids. It pays for 46 years of the eliminated community access program for any one province, where we were supplying Internet services in our libraries and community centres for those who could not afford the $70, $80, or $90 a month to be connected on the Internet. It pays for eco-energy retrofit grants for 6,000 homes.
It was $12,000 to shrink-wrap one train at a time when infrastructure funding is being cut 90% this year.
This tells us everything we need to know about the government's priorities. It is shamelessly using federal tax dollars to promote its brand, its common look and feel, its websites, and its Facebook ads. For heaven's sake, the Conservatives are even advertising now on Xbox.
This can all stop. The government, the party in power, can be put out of its advertising misery overnight. All it has to do is adopt the bill and create an advertising commissioner who is empowered to review advertisements before they go to print. The bill goes as far as empowering the advertising commissioner to actually ensure that before a print run is performed, before any government sends out an order to a print house to run, for example, 30,000 or two million pamphlets, it is approved in advance.
The government has lost its way. I think the Prime Minister has really lost his way in this regard. This is a person who came to Ottawa riding a horse called “accountability”. He railed against this for years. He railed against it while he was in office, and he railed against it while he was out of office. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation itself cannot understand why the Prime Minister is pursuing this kind of advertising policy, if we can call it that. It is also supportive of the bill and its measures.
We have a situation where we can do right and better by Canadians. We can look at the $760 million the government spent and ask, “Did we really get good value for money?”
The bill allows for important messaging. Yes, it allows a government to actually inform Canadians about tax measures or program expenditures or benefits they are entitled to. All of that is available, just not the way it is being done now.
A government would not be able to, for example, advertise measures that do not exist. We can all recall several years ago the Advertising Standards Council of Canada taking the government to task for running ads on television during sporting events for programs for job training that did not even exist. For those Canadians who follow playoff hockey, they are watching ads now. Each spot is a minimum of $100,000. There is no message. That would provide support for 300 student jobs over the summer.
It is important for us to remember when we talk about this kind of advertising that we need to juxtapose it against real needs in Canadian society. That is why I am bringing the bill forward. To go back to that theme, it allows for the important advertisements. If the government is recruiting staff, it is permitted. If the government is looking for contractors to do good work for the federal government, it is permitted. If it wants a message out on health crises, like H1N1 or the SARS crisis, that is permitted. If it needs a message to folks in southern Alberta during a flood, that is permitted.
All of this would go a great distance, to come exactly back to where I began, to drive up confidence and trust in the way all governments operate at a time when too many Canadians are despondent and disappointed and are checking out.
The House has an obligation to do everything it can to drive up confidence. I remain hopeful, and I ask my colleagues from all sides of the House to join us and support me in Bill C-544 so that we can do right by Canadians.
Subtopic: Elimination of Partisan Government Advertising Act