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Ontario’s new ‘It’s happening here’ ads slammed as waste of taxpayers’ dollars

A new taxpayer-funded advertising campaign by Premier Doug Ford’s government touting the Ontario economy and provincial investments is facing criticism as a wasteful way to spend public money. 

The multi-media ad blitz is entitled “It’s Happening Here” and includes TV commercials that have aired during such choice time slots as the Grammy Awards and the NHL all-star game. 

“What if we told you there’s a place where it’s all happening?” the announcer says in one version of the ad, as a bearded farmer unloads sacks from a flatbed trailer. 

“A place where more people are going to work than ever before. A place that’s building new roads and highways,” the script continues, under video of commuters on a train, followed by a dog with its head out a car window. 

“And what if we told you, you already live here?” the ad concludes, as the word Ontario appears on the screen. 

WATCH | The 60-second version of the Ontario government’s new TV ad:

Government of Ontario’s new TV ad ‘It’s happening here’

2 days ago

Duration 1:00

This advertisement, paid for by Ontario taxpayers, has aired in prime timeslots, including the NHL all-star game and the Grammy Awards.

The campaign also includes radio spots with similar scripting, as well as ads on billboards, transit and social media sites. An official in the premier’s office declined to reveal how much the province is spending on the ads.  

“The campaign is designed to instill pride in the many accomplishments of Team Ontario and confidence in the province’s economy, especially at a time of global economic uncertainty,” said Ford’s director of media relations Caitlin Clark in an email to CBC News. 

The cost of the ads will eventually be made public, when the auditor general’s annual report on government advertising is released at the end of the year. 

A similar ad campaign called “Ontario Is Getting Stronger” that ran in the months leading up to the 2022 provincial election cost $13.5 million, then-auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said in that year’s report.

The NDP’s critic on affordability issues, MPP Bhutila Karpoche, says the new advertising campaign shows the government is out of touch with the majority of Ontarians and their struggles.  

“When I see the ad, I see the Ford Conservative government spending money telling the people of Ontario, ‘Look how good you have it,'” Karpoche said in an interview. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus March 25, 2022.
The ad campaign is designed to to instill pride in the accomplishments of ‘Team Ontario’ and confidence in the province’s economy, said a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

“This ad is basically giving themselves a pat on their back for a job well done, when the job is nowhere near being done,” she said.

Ads slammed as ‘puff pieces’

The Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Jay Goldberg, says this is not the sort of advertising that should be funded by public money. 

“We shouldn’t be seeing these kinds of ads that don’t really inform the public and are just really political puff pieces,” said Goldberg in an interview.

“Unfortunately, governments of multiple stripes in this province love to launch advertisements that don’t really inform the public of anything,” he said. 

Ontario law prohibits governments from using publicly funded advertisements to explicitly promote the party in power, or to denigrate the opposition.

Provincial ad campaigns require advance approval from the auditor general. The auditor is mandated to reject any government ads that use political party logos, or the names, voices or pictures of elected officials.

A man in a white shirt and dress pants is depicted flying across a river valley toward a broken down wooden bridge.
In 2016, then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s government spent $5.7 million in public funds on advertising to promote its proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. The plan was abandoned after the Trudeau government agreed to enhance the Canada Pension Plan. This still comes from an ad that aired on television at the time. (Government of Ontario)

Until 2015, the auditor could also reject ads as partisan if making people feel good about the government was (in the auditor’s view) their primary purpose. 

But then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government watered down the law, narrowing the definition of partisan. The auditor warned at the time that the changes would open the door to an avalanche of what she called “self-congratulatory ads” at taxpayer expense.

Here’s some of what ensued: 

  • In 2016, Wynne’s Liberal government spent $5.7 million on ads about a proposed Ontario pension plan, a program that the government floated but didn’t create. 
  • In 2017, the government spent $5.5 million on ads telling people that electricity rates had come down.
  • In the run-up to the 2018 election campaign, the government spent nearly $20 million on taxpayer-funded advertising that the auditor found was primarily designed “to foster a positive impression of the governing party.”
A construction worker viewed from behind wearing a red plaid shirt and carrying two-by-fours toward a partially completed house.
A still image from a taxpayer-funded advertisement called ‘Ontario is getting stronger’ that ran in early 2022, ahead of the last provincial election campaign. The ads debuted during the Super Bowl and cost a total of more than $13 million. (ONgov/YouTube)

Ford’s Ontario PC party made an election promise in 2018 to reverse the changes to the advertising rules.

But Ford’s government didn’t keep that promise, and has instead spent millions on ads that the auditor said would not have been approved under the earlier version of the law. They included: 

“The ads we took issue with included statements such as ‘We’re reducing wait times for surgeries,’ ‘We’re building 3,000 more hospital beds’ and ‘We’re adding and upgrading nearly 60,000 long-term care beds’, without context or evidence to back up these claims,” the auditor wrote in her report on that campaign.

Shelley Spence, who became Ontario’s new auditor general in January, declined CBC’s request for an interview on the latest ad campaign. 

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