B.C. auditor general warns Liberal government budget ad is too political

B.C.'s auditor general has warned the B.C. Liberals that the provincial government's advertising campaign promoting the province's budget is too political.

Carol Bellringer said she shared her concerns with Andrew Wilkinson, the minister in charge of advertising, during a meeting.

"I said we didn't do an audit, we haven't gone and looked at all the ads, but I did notice one where the introduction to the ad was speaking about balanced budget 2017," she said. 

The "Balanced Budget 2017" television campaign in question references a future reduction in medical services plan premiums.

"The reference to a budget document that's not in place yet — it's not a program you can access tomorrow — was starting to get into something we thought was political, that guidelines should address."

In a statement, Wilkinson described his meeting with Bellringer as "constructive and respectful."

"The auditor general provided a perspective on government advertising. She is not planning an audit of government advertising, and she suggested that the existing guidelines around advertising be revised in the foreseeable future," it read.

Advertising budget doubled

In December the province doubled its advertising budget to $15 million, but Bellringer said spending on advertising should not be impacted by election cycles.

"It should be absolutely neutral, it should never change. The temptation during an election period must increase, but it's a period where scrutiny should also increase," she said. 

"It's important for the public to know what programs are out there that they can access," she said, "...and so spending shouldn't peak in an election period."

Because the fiscal year ends on March 31, the advertisements in question are expected to stop appearing on television. However they could remain in circulation on YouTube and on government websites.

B.C. Liberals criticized 

The province has faced considerable criticism already from the NDP and the Green Party for using taxpayer dollars to benefit their re-election campaign. 

Two Vancouver lawyers have also filed a lawsuit against the province for allegedly misusing $15 million in tax money to enhance the image of the B.C. Liberal Party.

NDP MLA Selina Robinson responded to Bellringer's comments by calling on B.C. Premier Christy Clark to return the $15 million to taxpayers.

"The auditor general says she doesn't have the power to stop it, but Christy Clark does have the power to stop this," she said.  

Robinson did not elaborate on how a return of funds might occur. 

"The B.C. Liberals have chosen to use taxpayer's money to promote themselves. The people's money should never be used to promote an election campaign," she said.

Robinson said an NDP government would create a third party independent body to review all governments advertising.

The B.C. auditor general reviewed the practice of government advertising in 2006 and 2014.

In the 2014 report the auditor general recommended the creation a general policy that would prohibit the use of partisan political information in government advertising, however that policy has yet to be created.