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B.C. government continues spending on advertising, despite financial pressures

Published on: March 12, 2018 by Rob Shaw

VICTORIA – The B.C. government is spending almost $4.5 million to advertise the provincial budget, electricity conservation programs and auto insurance changes, despite being sharply critical of such “propaganda” publicity campaigns by the previous Liberal government.

The government has budgeted to spend up to $600,000 to promote last month’s provincial budget, through radio, newspaper and social media ads. As well, B.C. Hydro is spending $3 million on an energy conservation awareness campaign, and the Insurance Corporation of B.C. is spending $795,000 to explain new government-ordered caps on pain and suffering in minor injury claims.

The advertising campaigns from the two Crown corporations come at a time when government ministers have described Hydro’s finances as a “mess” and ICBC as a “dumpster fire.” Both Crown corporations are facing significant pressure to hike rates, with ICBC on track to lose $1.3 billion this year and Hydro unable to freeze rates after the independent power regulator ruled this month that it couldn’t afford to lose the revenue. The government is in the middle of operational reviews of both corporations to try and find savings.

The financial problems in both Crown corporations presents a major risk to the NDP government’s fiscal plan, Finance Minister Carole James said last month. The provincial government is also short of revenue for its housing, child care and health spending, so it raised or introduced several new taxes in order to generate hundreds of millions of dollars this coming fiscal year.

But the financial pressures don’t appear to have diminished government’s desire to spend large sums of public money on advertising its political message, a tactic exploited most recently by the previous B.C. Liberal government. The $600,000 earmarked to promote awareness of the NDP’s February budget compares to $663,000 spent by the Liberals to advertise their February 2017 pre-election budget. “Some programs like Pharmacare and the new affordable child care benefit will require people to apply for them, and that’s why we’re making sure to let people know,” James said in a statement. “For example, 240,000 people will have better access to prescription medicines as a result of the Pharmacare investments we made in this budget.”

Premier John Horgan used to complain bitterly about the Liberal government’s advertising spending during his tenure as leader of the Opposition. Just months before the 2017 election, he dubbed then Liberal cabinet minister Andrew Wilkinson the “minister of propaganda” for raising government’s annual advertising spending from $8.5 million to $15 million.

“How many services would this government be able to provide to British Columbians if it cut back on the propaganda and started delivering programs?” Horgan said in the legislature at the time.

Now in power, the NDP budget last month projected approximately $11 million in central government advertising for the coming fiscal year, not counting Crown corporations like ICBC and Hydro.

The NDP in opposition three times tabled private member’s legislation that would have required government advertising to first get the approval of the independent Auditor General as non-partisan and factual. “We’ll start by ending waste on Christy Clark’s partisan government ads,” read the party’s 2017 election platform. “We’ll work with the auditor general to set strong standards for advertising spending.”

James said involving the auditor general is still being considered as one possibility. “We haven’t made a determination about what the best route is yet, but we’re still looking at that,” she said.

Liberal house leader Mary Polak said the ad spending and quiet backtrack away from the auditor general is another example of the NDP failing to deliver on its election promises. “That was a pretty clear commitment from them,” said Polak. “If they wanted them to vet ads they could be doing it already. They said it was a good idea, why would it suddenly not be when they are in government?”

Hydro’s advertising includes a TV and social media campaign involving a bearded energy conservation enthusiast who helps residents save electricity by showing them tricks, such as putting a towel in the dryer with their wet clothes to speed up drying time.

“We offer a number of conservation programs and different types of billing support,” said Hydro spokesperson Mora Scott. “Our goal during these campaigns is to raise awareness about the programs we offer and provide tips on how customers can reduce their electricity use to save money on their bills.”

Hydro said it is spending half of what it spent on advertising campaigns in 2010. However, the ads don’t promote awareness of the NDP government’s new plan for lifeline rates or grants for those suffering financial hardship, which the government announced last month following the B.C. Utilities Commission rejection of its plan to freeze Hydro rates for one year.

The BCUC said Hydro could not afford the $140-million cost of the freeze, which was an NDP election promise, because Hydro is facing more than $6 billion in deferral accounts yet to be repaid. “They were very clear in a nutshell that there’s a mess at B.C. Hydro,” Energy Minister Michelle Mungall said in response to the ruling at the time. “It needs to be cleaned up and I hear that.”

ICBC’s advertising is focused on the $5,500 cap on pain and suffering claims for minor injuries, announced by Attorney General David Eby last month. Eby has called ICBC’s finances “a dumpster fire” because it is haemorrhaging money due to rising injury claims, crash rates and legal fees. His reforms are part of a larger multi-step plan to reform how ICBC offers, sells and charges basic automobile insurance. ICBC said it felt compelled to advertise those changes. The campaign does not cover ICBC’s activation of red light cameras to ticket speeders.

“This announcement focused on the biggest overhaul of ICBC’s product and B.C.’s auto insurance system in decades so we felt it was important to get accurate information out to our customers and all interested parties through all channels possible and in multiple languages,” said spokesperson Adam Grossman. “This was especially important to ensure accurate information is available regarding the changes to accident benefits and the cap on pain and suffering payouts for minor injury claims.”

Early in its tenure the NDP attracted criticism for hiring its party videographer to a government communications job, and then producing a set of taxpayer-funded online government ads that used the same “Better B.C.” tagline the NDP used during its election campaign, featuring people thanking the NDP government for honouring its campaign promises.

The Liberals were also rapped by the auditor general in 2017 for public advertisements considered too partisan.

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