The Ontario election is just over three months away and the campaign hasn’t officially started. But Doug Ford has already started advertising. You won’t see his name or the PC Party on the ad, but it walks and talks like an election ad. It is titled “Ontario is Getting Stronger” and it is being shown on television and in cinemas and displayed on newspaper websites. It is also posted on the Ontario Government’s website and YouTube channel.
Political Advertising by Government
As its rubric suggests, it’s a feel-good ad about the Ontario economy. It speaks in generalities and in the passive voice. Within its thirty seconds of airtime it contains lines like “more workers are joining the skilled trades,” “more jobs are being created,” “bridges and highways are being built,” “public transit is expanding,” and “new homes are being constructed.” The footage matches the text, and the unseen narrator is enthusiastic. The ad makes no attempt to substantiate its claims and makes no reference to any policy of the Ford Government. The use of the passive voice avoids agency, but the clear inference is that the actor responsible for all these good things that are supposed to be happening is the Ford Government.
The Auditor General of Ontario reviews government advertising to ensure that it isn’t partisan. The standards of the Government Advertising Act are weak, only that a Government of Ontario ad cannot include politicians, party names and logos, or “to a significant degree” party colours. The ad starts with “Ontario” on a blue field and ends with “Ontario is getting stronger” on the same blue field, but that is likely not considered a significant use of PC Party blue.
Ontario’s fiscal year ends on March 31, so the budget for this ad is likely coming out of funds that would lapse by year-end. Funding is easy if it isn’t competing with real priorities.
While I’m not pleased by this political ad in governmental clothing, I’m heartened by what appears to be its minimal impact. Despite its abundant posting on newspaper websites, in the 10 days it has been running on YouTube it has been viewed only 1945 times in English and 259 times in French.
Doug Ford’s Hypocrisy
The ad is objectionable in and of itself, but what bothers me more is the hypocrisy and cynicism it displays. On the one hand, Doug Ford is treating the government as a megaphone to advance his political message. On the other hand, Doug Ford misses no opportunity to shut down the voices of his political opponents. Here are four examples from his four years in office:
- Raising the definition of official party status in the legislature to 12 seats to ensure that the Liberals lost that status and the research support that comes with it,
- Reducing the size of Toronto city council in the midst of the municipal election campaign and threatening to use the notwithstanding clause if the courts did not ratify his action,
- Defunding post-secondary student organizations such as student government and newspapers to shut down people he referred to as “Marxists,” a decision ultimately reversed by the courts, and
- Using the notwithstanding clause to amend the Election Finances Act to curtail third party advertising, a decision that especially restricts advertising by labour unions.
In numerous countries, we are seeing assaults on democracy that start when the party in power changes the rules to make it increasingly difficult for the opposition to win an election. Doug Ford is starting down this road. Citizens can appeal to the courts, but Ford is willing to use the notwithstanding clause as his trump card. Doug Ford’s attempts to chip away at our democracy should be an issue in this election.