Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A banner blue ad day that continues to raise questions

Blue was the colour of the day yesterday, as the Prime Minister was speaking, providing an economic update which was more akin to Conservative talking points. Some photo evidence that must be noted. All over the major web media yesterday were the ads:

Today, if you check the same the sites, the ads have subsided. It was obviously quite the push that was on yesterday (and on the weekend, in the lead-up) in conjunction with Harper's speech. There's clearly a well-oiled propaganda machine at the ready, available to be fired up to reinforce the day's political message. You may also have noticed the longer television ad touting the plan on national newscasts last night as well. Figures have varied as to the recent costs for this advertising, from $5.6 million to $4 million. With yesterday's push, the numbers have got to be going up.

The use of public money to push a Conservative political message is inappropriate, unethical and pushing the limits of what's acceptable government messaging. Clearly, when you look at just the above set of ads, magically timed to coincide with the Prime Minister's action plan update, there's something wrong here.

Here is an ethics argument to make, it's not a slam dunk, but it's worth considering.

Section 23 of the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada:
Institutions must not use public funds to purchase advertising in support of a political party.
The ads being run by the Government of Canada at the moment contain a political message congruent with the Conservative party's message that the country must "stay on track" and that no election should occur.
Tories like Transport Minister John Baird have argued an election would slow stimulus spending of infrastructure projects. The government’s new taxpayer-funded $4.1-million TV ad campaign to tout the stimulus package – purchased in August – airs commercials that include the tag line: “We can’t stop now.”
There is possibly a conflict of interest operative here where the private interests of the Conservative party, i.e., obtaining political support via advertisements, are being furthered by the use of public taxpayer funds, as carried out by Conservative members of parliament.

Some relevant provisions from the Conflict of Interest Act:
3. The purpose of this Act is to

(b) minimize the possibility of conflicts arising between the private interests and public duties of public office holders and provide for the resolution of those conflicts in the public interest should they arise;
The private interests, one would argue, are those of the Conservative party that are factoring into the advertising decisions being made.
4. For the purposes of this Act, a public office holder is in a conflict of interest when he or she exercises an official power, duty or function that provides an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.

9. No public office holder shall use his or her position as a public office holder to seek to influence a decision of another person so as to further the public office holder’s private interests or those of the public office holder’s relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.
Additional relevant articulations of the conflict of interest rules appear in the Member's Code:
3.(1) The following definitions apply in this Code.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), a Member is considered to further a person’s private interests, including his or her own private interests, when the Member’s actions result, directly or indirectly, in any of the following
(a) an increase in, or the preservation of, the value of the person’s assets;
(c) the acquisition of a financial interest by the person;
This articulation of when a private interest is furthered would require a successful argument that the Conservative party has directly or indirectly financially benefited from the government ads. The argument would be that ads have been purchased which benefit the party and which the party did not have to pay for. In that sense, one would argue that a financial interest would have been gained by the Conservative party.

The Conservatives might argue that the ad decision is a matter of "general application" not singling out any group in particular:
(3) For the purpose of this Code, a Member is not considered to further his or her own private interests or the interests of another person if the matter in question
(a) is of general application;
(b) affects the Member or the other person as one of a broad class of the public;
The purchase of ads can be characterized as a matter of general application to advertise the economic action plan, yes that's true. But the specific tailoring of the message in those television ads on the need to "stay on track" is a message specifically tailored for the benefit of one political party. That's prohibited under section 23 of the Communications Policy above. And the Conservatives would also need to satisfy (b), that the Conservative party is affected "as one of a broad class of the public." The specific benefit gained by the Conservative party is there to be argued though.

The seeds of an argument are there. It's a difficult one but it seems like enough to ask for clarification from the Ethics Commissioner. This purchase of ads with millions of taxpayer dollars that is benefiting the Conservative party warrants publicity, opposition and complaint. What kind of democracy do we want to be living in...one where big brother buys ads to benefit itself or do we want to stand up and say no?

If others have better readings on this, happy to consider.