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Pension ad may have been partisan under old regulations

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TORONTO—Ontario’s auditor general would question the timing of a new pension plan ad—which is running during the federal election campaign—if the Liberal government hadn’t changed the oversight rules.

The provincial government this spring amended the criteria under which the auditor general approves or rejects government ads, with auditor Bonnie Lysyk warning the changes would gut the legislation and could lead to the public paying for partisan advertising.

She said at the time it would reduce her office to a rubber stamp, and could put them in the position of approving ads that conformed to the government’s new definition of partisan, but were “clearly partisan by any objective, reasonable standard.”

The government is now running an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan ad that met all of the new criteria for not being partisan, but certain aspects of the ad would have given Lysyk pause under the old, more subjective criteria, she said.

“We would have commented on the running of the ad during the federal election,” Lysyk said.

Under the old rules government ads couldn’t indirectly criticize a political party, making no distinction between federal and provincial, Lysyk said.

“We would have suggested that perhaps the timing of running the ad could be construed as partisan. Under the new act that type of thing only applies to direct criticism of a provincial party.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne has publicly sparred with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper over the ORPP, saying he has been refusing to co-operate with her attempts to shore up Ontarians’ retirement savings, while Harper has called the new plan an “enormous tax hike.”

It will be phased in starting in 2017 for employers with 500 or more workers and no workplace pension.

A spokesman for the minister responsible for the ORPP said a newer online/television ad—which shows a woman jumping across a river while a narrator talks about a “retirement savings gap” for people without a workplace pension—and a radio ad that began running in June are intended to build awareness of the program ahead of its introduction.

“Our work doesn’t stop just because Stephen Harper chose to call the election when he did,” Drew Davidson, a spokesman for Mitzie Hunter, said in a statement.

“The government has a responsibility to raise awareness and communicate information about its programs and services. We will continue to advertise government programs and services, just as the federal government advertised during the last year’s Ontario election. That’s what we’re doing with the ORPP.”

Davidson said because this advertising campaign has different components and phases he couldn’t provide “a complete dollar figure” at the moment.

“The costs and timing are modelled on previous contracts with similar, large-scale, integrated advertising and marketing campaigns, like the HST,” he wrote.

The new legislation defines partisan by banning the use of an elected member’s picture, name or voice, the colour or logo associated with the political party and direct criticism of a recognized party or member of the legislature.

The old legislation said it can’t be a primary objective of an ad to “foster a positive impression of the governing party or a negative impression of a person or entity who is critical of the government.”

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