Province to spend $4M more on ads with election on horizon

Public dollars being spent for partisan purposes, counters NDP

The latest wave of the “Our Opportunity is Here” ad campaign continues this month with an ad promoting job training and subsidies for single parents.

The B.C. government has budgeted more than $4 million to buy more ads promoting social services and tax breaks before the 2017 election.

That is on top of the nearly $5 million it already spent between last November and the end of March. It also doesn’t count the four new ads that paint the planned LNG industry and Site C dam as green initiatives.

The latest wave of the so-called B.C. Services campaign, better known by its “Our Opportunity is Here” slogan, began in September to promote the new schools curriculum and continues this month with an ad promoting job training and subsidies for single parents.

Under freedom of information, BIV obtained a September 2016 document by the Government Communications and Public Engagement department. Titled “Marketing Brief for the Services Campaign,” it says the estimated budget for the fiscal year is $4.046 million, of which $2.746 million was earmarked for TV, radio, print and out-of-home ads, $1 million for online, mobile and social media ads, and $300,000 for creative production.

The government gave even more details in response to an NDP FOI request. That document said the BC Liberals authorized $7.8 million in spending since November 19, 2015, though only $6.6 million had been spent as of September 23. The contractors are Vizeum ($4.6 million for TV, radio and out-of-home), Kimbo ($1.6 million for online ads), St. Bernadine ($937,716 for creative and production) and Response ($500,000 for translation).

Even after the document was released to BIV, a government spokesman refused to disclose any budget and spending figures. Rodney Porter of the Advanced Education Ministry told BIV to wait until next July — after the May 9 provincial election — for the annual public accounts to be released.

“They’re using public dollars for partisan purposes,” said NDP finance critic Carole James. “They’re hiding information, deleting it when they can. If they’re not ashamed of it, why are they not putting the information out there?”

The August 19, Communications Project Approval document by the government’s director of advertising and marketing Hide Ozawa and strategic communications advisor Mike Wilson said $773,000 was the estimated cost for the new curriculum campaign. The document said the campaign would run September 5 to October 16, but Porter told BIV in September the schedule was August 30 to October 31.

The curriculum ad was followed by another ad to promote job training, benefits and subsidies for 17,000 eligible single parents that Porter said will run through December 15.

The “Our Opportunity is Here” campaign originally launched the same day the Legislature ended its fall sitting last November and is scheduled to run through March 31, 2017, less than two weeks before the official election period begins.

Kimbo’s president is Kim Pickett, who created logos for Premier Christy Clark’s 2011 leadership campaign and the 2013 BC Liberal re-election campaign. Kimbo billed taxpayers $4.25 million between April 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015. Ethnic marketing agency Response Advertising was involved in earlier waves of “Our Opportunity is Here.” Its president, Jatinder Rai, is a BC Liberal re-election committee advisor and former ICBC director who was recently appointed to the B.C. Pavilion Corporation board.

The four companies working on “Our Opportunity is Here” were among those deemed preferred suppliers by politically appointed senior bureaucrats following a post-2013 election call for expressions of interest.

Overall, the government spent $12.45 million on information and publications in 2015-2016, up from $5.67 million a year earlier.

The September 2016 internal document says that “Public funds must not be used to purchase advertising in support of a political party.” But the government went on a similar pre-election spree in 2012 and 2013, spending $16.6 million on ads that promoted the BC Liberal Jobs Plan.

Last May, the NDP unsuccessfully tabled Bill M230, the Government Advertising Act, to require any ads the government commissions to be in the public interest and non-partisan.

Similar to Ontario’s 2004 law, the NDP wanted ads to be reviewed and approved by the Auditor General. The NDP bill also called for a ban on government advertising during the four months preceding an election.

Meanwhile, transit shelter ads to promote re-election of  Andrew Wilkinson, the Advanced Education Minister and BC Liberal MLA in Vancouver-Quilchena, were spotted a week after the Liberal convention. The posters feature the BC Liberal logo in small print at bottom, but not Clark’s name.

Elections BC spokesman Andrew Watson said there are no restrictions on election advertising by registered political parties or third party sponsors before the writs of election are issued on April 11.

bmackin@biv.com