Les Leyne: Adrian Dix is singing a different tune about self-promoting advertising policy

Opposition leader Adrian Dix’s plan to curb self-promoting partisan government advertising is a good idea that he was happy to expound upon Tuesday.

But he was a touch reticent about whether it represents a change in his personal views on the topic over the years.

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The last time he was anywhere near the premier’s office, the government he served was doing exactly the same thing that Premier Christy Clark is now wildly enthusiastic about.

That is, blow millions of tax dollars on an ad campaign that does nothing for anyone but the politicians who dreamed it up.

If Dix takes power next spring and follows through on his promise, these campaigns will become a thing of the past.

He’s going to air a bill next month that would require the auditor general to review all government advertising. If there’s the slightest whiff of politics, the ads can be rejected.

His bill stipulates no face time for politicians in the ads, no self-promotion, no negativity about other parties and no non-essential ads in the pre-writ period.

If it were in place now, the ongoing B.C. jobs plan saturation ad campaign would be stopped dead in its tracks.

Clark’s communication geniuses now view B.C. the way the U.S. military viewed Vietnam — a target to be carpet-bombed into submission.

Polls suggest the campaign will be just about as successful as that effort was.

It’s about to be augmented by a separate campaign funded by private supporters of the B.C. Liberals. It will be a much more negative campaign aimed at the NDP, and specifically at Dix.

The proposed law would have no impact on that. It’s a free country. People can advertise as they choose, up to election time. The only consolation for people absorbing those ads is that at least they didn’t pay for them.

There’s no question the curbs that the NDP has in mind would derail the entire jobs-plan blitz. Because there’s no hard information in any of them, other than that the B.C. Liberals are economic wizards who deserve to get re-elected.

If the law were in place today, the province would be millions of dollars ahead.

The curious thing is that such a law would likely have barred millions of dollars in government advertising during the NDP years, as well. Specifically, the years Dix was chief of staff to then-premier Glen Clark.

That Clark government ran a campaign in 1997-98 almost identical to the one now underway.

“Jobs for B.C. It’s Working.”

It’s amusing to read former Vancouver Sun reporter Tom Barrett’s analysis of that campaign at the time.

There were the same problems as today:

• Employment numbers dropped during the campaign, which negated the entire thrust.

• The Opposition Liberals condemned them as a misleading waste of tax dollars.

• The auditor general of the day — George Morfitt — was complaining that there were no rules to keep propaganda out of government advertising.

He had earlier urged a ban on partisan information in public government communications. The premier’s communications director, Geoff Meggs — now a Vancouver councillor — offered a hollow argument that the government had an obligation to report on its initiatives. Particularly if they were good news ones.

Amazing to think 17 years after the auditor general flagged it, we’re still waiting for common sense to break out on this front.

Dix didn’t recall the specific NDP “Jobs for B.C. It’s Working” campaign.

Asked whether his proposed ban would have ruled out that campaign, he laughed and said: “I’m happy to take responsibility for all of the 1990s.”

He said there is a place for advertising programs people need to know about. Did he have misgivings about that campaign at the time? Or did he willingly go along with the program?

There were no answers on that historical point.

Regardless of whether he’s acting now on past reservations, or simply changed his mind about propaganda, the proposed bill is a good idea.

The test will be whether it stands up years from now, when a government is flagging, close to an election and feels the need to explain to people how wonderfully they’re actually doing.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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