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Most Ontario government ads last year were partisan: auditor general

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Ontario's Progressive Conservative government spent about $25 million -- or three quarters of its total advertising spending -- last year on ads the auditor general believes are partisan.

Acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos said in the office's annual report Wednesday that while the government spent about half of what it did the previous year on advertising due to a drop in COVID-19 campaigns, the two largest campaigns were too partisan.

"Our office concluded that the primary objective of these ads and/or information on their respective websites was to foster a positive impression of the government," Stavropoulos wrote in the report.

Prior to 2015, ads were banned as partisan if the intent was to foster a positive impression of government or a negative impression of its critics, but the then-Liberal government amended the rules in that year.

Now, the auditor general can only veto an ad as partisan if it uses an elected member's picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party or direct criticism of a party or member of the legislature.

Previous auditor general Bonnie Lysyk railed against the changes at the time, as did the Progressive Conservatives when they were in Opposition.

They promised during the 2018 election to reverse the Liberal rules, but decided otherwise once in government.

Two ad campaigns on the health care system and public school funding would not have passed review under those previous rules because they talked about building 3,000 more hospital beds and hiring 3,000 more school staff without evidence, the auditor said.

The government spent more than $20 million on the health-care ad campaign in the 2022-23 fiscal year, out of a total approximately $34 million in ad spending.

That total is less than half of the government advertising spending for the previous year, largely due to a "substantial decrease" in COVID-19 advertising campaigns.

In 2021-22, the government spent about $46 million on advertising for COVID-19 vaccine campaigns and related initiatives, but in the last fiscal year that dropped to less than $300,000.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023

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