All right. Communications, eh?
The main thing I wanted to start by saying is how excited I am to be doing this. Thank you very much for asking me.
I think it's helpful to understand where I'm coming from as somebody who studies government and political communication.
The first thing you should know about my approach is that we should think about communications much as we think about ethics. By this I mean that a situation is rarely black and white; it's not as though somebody is always necessarily wrong or always necessarily right. Situations are constantly in a state of evolution, and we should think of a lot of it as a matter of opinion.
What I often say when I'm interviewed by journalists is that much is in the eye of the beholder. When journalists ask me something, I'll say, “Well, you may think that, but somebody else might think something different.”
It's also helpful to understand that the academics who study in this area sometimes are very critical and sometimes very political. I myself—very much, I would argue, like Dr. Rose—try to eliminate biases in the research I do, to identify information, and to present suggestions for reform that people would say are non-partisan and pragmatic.
I would suggest that the default position of government, no matter which political party happens to be in government or whether we're talking at the provincial-territorial level, should be transparency. More than that, the default should also be proactive disclosure, so that information is available before people even ask for it.
I also think that, just as a general principle, we should recognize that in the political game there are different opinions based on whether a party at any given time happens to be in government or in opposition. We should accept the fact that many public servants are risk averse; they're secretive, they're worried, and they are increasingly operating in a frenetic, online public sphere.
Journalists often have unrealistic demands. They're doing an important job, but at the same time their timelines are shrinking. They make demands on what must be available and when it must be available, and it can be very difficult to be able to provide that information to them in a timely manner.
Last, I think we should accept that people have different political agendas. We can't live in a world in which we just say that everything should be available all the time, because the reality is that sometimes information may cause actual harm. The question is one of trying to figure out when that might happen.
To focus my suggestions about the kinds of things that might be done, I wrote a book called Brand Command. This particular book is the one I'm going to refer to in a moment.
On pages 369 to 377 there is a list of suggestions. The first suggestion, the one I'm actually excited to mention, is to have Parliament regularly update the Government of Canada's communications policy. I'm really pleased to see that we're even having this conversation.
The second suggestion—whether or not Parliament would be able to do this is another matter, but I recommend it—is that there should be a political communication code of ethics. In the book I get into the reason I think that would be helpful.
Here is something which I think Parliament may want to consider doing. In my opinion, there should not be public taxpayers' or any donor funding provided for what we would call “de-branding”—often people refer to it as “negative advertising”—without people's specific, explicit knowledge that money is going in that direction. Some of this is explained in the book.
The fourth thing I recommend is that political parties should not be using the official colours of the Government of Canada. That's a very non-partisan statement, but it is important to me that there not be confusion between a political party and an operation of the government.
I think Mr. Whalen is on your committee, from Newfoundland and Labrador. He would know that here in Newfoundland and Labrador it's very common for the licence plates to change colour. If you're in Newfoundland and Labrador and you see that the licence plate is blue, it's usually because of what political party is in power at the time. If the licence plate is red, it's because....
Yes, he's nodding his head.
These are the kinds of things that happen quite a bit, and to me they're a source of concern.
Next, in my view there should be annual reports about money that is spent on what we would call photo ops, or what is often called in academia “pseudo events”. We have annual reports for advertising and public opinion research. I think it's magnificent that they do those, but I would suggest that reports are actually needed on spending related to photo ops. Photo ops involve an awful lot of time and effort and can be seen as an alternative to advertising. It seems to me it would be useful to have such reports.
The last thing is—again, whether or not it were Parliament doing this—it would be helpful for society if we were to have a form of checklist to assess government advertising. When I do interviews with journalists, they're often trying to understand whether or not government advertising is acceptable or whether it's seen as partisan. There's nothing I can ever say to them. I can't say, “Look at this list; this is the list of things that exists.” Dr. Rose knows that in Ontario, for example, there is a bit of a list that can be drawn upon, but the lack of any form of guidance for journalists can be quite difficult.
I have two further suggestions to bring to the committee's consideration.
Since I prepared Brand Command, I've conducted some research using access to information for both the Government of Canada and the provinces and territories. A further suggestion I have is that, in my view, communications planning templates should by default be available online. What I mean by planning templates is anything that I would call or academics might call “below-the-line documents”, such as planning documents for media inquiry processing. Templates don't have to be filled out, but they would provide the structure of things.
Think about a briefing note. The structure of what is in a briefing note is often publicly available. Certainly for a cabinet paper we would see what the structure is. What we don't see, however, is the structure of communications planning templates, such as for event planning, for rollout plans, for calendars, all these things that, to me, should by default be available online.
The last comment I would offer is that a little more recently—I haven't researched this, so I have to preface my comment with that—I'm coming to the opinion that it would be helpful to have proactive disclosure of social media campaigns. I absolutely understand why the government is heading in a direction in which, in lieu of television advertising, for example, or print advertising, much of the advertising is going online: it's very targeted; it's efficient.... There are many other reasons that it's useful. It's good value for money, obviously. The challenge is that only certain people might see that information, and a government, in my view, should make sure that everybody has the opportunity to see information that it makes available. This is especially the case for those who don't happen to be on social media.
I would argue that it would be useful to have a depository in which anything that involves social media could be seen by people easily and they wouldn't have to search anything out. Again the default, in my view, should be proactive disclosure rather than reactive disclosure, as a general working principle.
I've managed to stay within 10 minutes. I hope that's okay.
I also want to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak. Like Alex, I've been researching and thinking about this topic for many years. I wrote the first book on government advertising and I was involved in the 2002 Auditor General's inquiry on advertising, sponsorship, and public opinion. More recently, I co-wrote a report for Elections Nova Scotia about how government should limit advertising before an election. For 10 years I have been on the provincial Auditor General's committee in Ontario that reviews government advertising.
My comments really are informed by that experience. Coming before this committee, a committee that is studying the subject, I now know what it's like to be a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention. Thank you for giving me that opportunity.
I'll cut to the chase. The changes that are made are, on the whole, welcome amendments. I agree with Professor Marland that there are various ways of seeing the same issue, but on the whole, they are on balance going, I think, in the right direction. What they attempt to do is curtail the impulse of governments of all political stripes to use taxpayers' money to buy voters' favour. They also place adjudication of advertising in the hands of a third party, which I think ensures legitimacy.
Having said that, I think there are some areas that can be improved. In the time I have, I want to talk about three areas: first, the definition of partisanship; second, the very narrow definition of advertising; and third, some issues around the 90-day ban.
Let me preface this by saying that it should be the goal of all governments to limit or prohibit partisan government communications. The Government of Canada has come a long way since Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior in Wilfrid Laurier's government, advertised Canada throughout Europe and described the winters in Canada as “bracing” and “invigorating”—a nose-stretcher, to be sure. After that, prior to the Quebec referendum, the federal government spent massive amounts of money on the Canadian Unity Information Office extolling the virtues of federalism.
I say this because it's not a surprise that for years the Government of Canada has been one of the top 10 spenders among advertisers in the country, and Canada historically has spent more per capita on advertising than any other democratic country. Thankfully, in the last 10 years, post-Gomery, this has changed. I think the governments of both political parties have taken great steps to improve the situation.
Let me move to partisanship. I think the most significant change is around banning partisanship.
In the policy, non-partisan communication is defined as information that is “objective, factual and explanatory”; that is “free from political party slogans, images, identifiers...”; that does not use a colour “associated with the governing party”; and that doesn't include a voice, name, or face of an MP.
These are all things on which I think reasonable people can agree. What is noteworthy is that with one exception—the “objective, factual and explanatory” one—partisanship is defined as something in the absence of things: you can't have party slogans; you can't have party colours; you can't have an MP. Perhaps this negative definition is a result of the inability to clearly define what is partisan. It brings to mind U.S. Justice Potter Stewart's famous line, “I know it when I see it.”
I would have liked to see the policy state positive standards to which government advertising must adhere and give greater latitude to the independent review body, the Advertising Standards Council. I think they should be given greater discretion in that the discretion they have is pretty limited.
The gold standard, in my opinion, is the Government of Ontario's Government Advertising Act of 2004. In its original version, prior to its being amended in 2015, the act placed the burden on the government to defend its use of advertising. In other words, all ads had to inform the public of policies or services, inform about rights, or encourage or discourage social behaviour in the public interest. These explicit goals placed the obligation on the government to demonstrate the need for an ad campaign in addition to demonstrating that it wasn't partisan.
More crucially, a required standard was that it “must not be a primary objective of the [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”. “Feel good” ads that serve no obvious public policy purpose, such, I would argue, as the Canada 150 ads or the economic action plan ads, would fall under that category.
The determination of whether an ad was partisan fell to the advertising review group, as I said, a group of which I was a part.
Prior to its being amended in 2015, the act allowed the Auditor General to determine the context of the ad or advertising campaign, and I want to suggest that context matters enormously. Sometimes a perfectly appropriate government ad can be supplemented by a political party ad that communicates the same thing. In those cases, the government ad is a thinly disguised attempt to leverage party advertising through government advertising.
This was exactly the case with the Ontario retirement pension plan of the Ontario Liberals. This campaign, which ran in 2015, met the standards and was broadcast by a very similar policy of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, changes to the act in 2015 allowed this, and assessment based on context was no longer permitted.
I should say, then, that this kind of advertising, in which party advertising piggybacks on government advertising, would be allowed under your changes. That's something you may want to think about.
The second thing is the scope of advertising. Louise Baird, who spoke before this committee on June 15, said that a “video that is produced and put on our departmental website” is “not considered advertising under the policy”, and of course, Ms. Baird is right. The issue is made clear by the policy on communications and federal identity, which states that government advertising “is defined as any message...paid for by the government for placement in media”. Well, what exactly is “placement”? Without being able to scrutinize government websites, there is a potential for content that is laudatory but that provides no information, not unlike the 24-7 campaign from a previous PMO.
The principle here is simple. There need to be rules in place so that if and when a government's good judgment lapses, that government can be held to account. Internet advertising by government has grown 126% from 2012 to 2015, the last year for which data are available. Virtually all ads in the traditional media of radio, print, and TV feature links to the Internet. If those websites are not covered under the changes, the reviewed ad that the ASC is looking at can simply serve as a way to drive traffic to a government website that does not adhere to the criterion.
In Ontario, the Auditor General reached an agreement with the provincial government that recognized that the link was actually an extension of the ad. We reviewed what we called the “first click”: if the ad took you to a landing page, the first click after that was also reviewable. That was important, because it prevented innocuous government ads from being teasers for non-reviewable partisan ads.
The last thing I want to talk about is the 90-day ban. This is an important improvement on past practice, but the research I've done has shown that governments spend more money in the year preceding an election rather than in the 90 days before it. The 90-day ban may thus have little effect. Moreover, the 90-day ban prior to the general election would not stop governments from advertising during by-elections. If we follow the same principle that advertising is undue influence during an election, surely the same logic must hold true in a by-election.
There are two provinces that have legislation limiting government advertising, and their practice might be instructive for the committee.
Manitoba also has a 90-day rule, but with prohibition during by-elections.
Saskatchewan is more nuanced. Advertising is banned during the election period, which is fixed at 27 days, and for 30 days prior to the election period. In the 90 days prior to the election period, however, the province limits what governments can advertise: only advertisements that inform the public about programs and services are allowed. Moreover, in the 120 days before the election period in Saskatchewan, the government is not allowed to spend more money than it did in the same time frame in the previous year, and as in Manitoba, advertising is banned.
I would urge the committee, therefore, to think about banning advertising during by-elections. With the average campaign in Canada being about 50 days long, this means that the present ban is only for 40 days, on average, before an election. If the next campaign were as long as the last one was, it would only be for about two weeks. That gives a lot of leeway to prime the electorate with government ads.
I think I've used up all my time. I'm happy to take questions on that or anything else. Thanks for your time.
I would add that I find in some ways it's actually helpful for Canadians themselves to be able to arrive at these judgments.
As I mentioned, I often find it's journalists who struggle. If we think about journalists, they're often the ones who are telling stories of Canadians and acting as that fourth estate. When I talk with them, they really struggle to try to understand what might be seen as partisan, what might not be, what is appropriate, and what isn't.
If we were to generally come up with some parameters that are broad, yet sufficiently precise, and which are publicly available, then yes, we might have an arm's-length group taking a look at things, or it could be an officer of Parliament.
What's really important to me is that somebody like me, when asked something, can say, “Here is the information online and here are the principles. Why don't you make an informed judgment for yourself based on these principles?” We don't always have to rely on all these other agents to do it.
That would be my general view, that it is actually helpful for Canadians to have some guidelines themselves.
When I was writing that recommendation in Brand Command, I really gave a lot of thought to all the research I had done, and a lot of it was under the previous government. I didn't want to come across as somehow conveying an opinion about a given political party. It's important to consider that this is something that also happens at the provincial level under different political parties.
The challenge is that under the previous government, there was this constant attempt to try to almost confuse—I don't know if it's confuse or simply combine—information in such a way that you couldn't tell the difference between what was party and what was the state, what was government and what was party. That became something a lot of people were concerned about.
The problem, I would suggest, is that with the current governing party, that's inherently part of it, just because of the nature of the colour schemes. If we can somehow remove ourselves from having opinions about whether we like one party or not, if we could just objectively look at it, to me that's the problem.
One of the recommendations I'd mentioned was that, in my opinion, the Government of Canada should be using red and white all the time. Those are the official government colours. They should be everywhere, and everybody should be able to recognize that. It's very sensible from a brand point of view that if you see red and white, you think Government of Canada. Of course, the trade-off to that is if any given political party happens to be using those colours, it becomes a problem.
This is where I go with my recommendation. I really just came to the conclusion that this is a problem we need to wrestle with. I'm not passing judgment on a party; it's just an issue we have to contend with.
Thank you very much, Chair. Thank you to the witnesses for being here today. This is extremely interesting.
There's one thing that's floating around in my mind. Are we chiefly concerned here with the nature of government or public advertising, or is it with the amount of the ad spend? That question begs a follow-up on my honourable colleague's concern about the money spend. Social media advertising is disrupting the whole traditional advertising spend—you know, dollars actually equal impact. It's a whole new world out there. There's a philosophical side to this conversation, which is exactly the kind of conversation I like to have, personally, and that's just something I want to throw out there.
On the money side, the $13.6 million, my understanding from reviewing my notes was that a lot of that was government departments. That also comes back to this question of how, when we say government ads, we immediately think government, executive, political-type advertising, whereas I think we're trying to get to a place where we're talking about public service information campaigns, which are in the public good.
I'd like to have your comments on both of those. If I can get to the external review question, I'll get to that as well, but it brings to mind the 1970s, when the concern of the day was subliminal advertising. Are we talking about that?
Maybe Mr. Rose could answer first, and then Professor Marland.
I'll just say you started in the right order, because Professor Rose definitely has a lot of expertise in the area of government advertising. Just to prove that point, when you were asking the question, I was thinking back to my point about how we really need to be thinking about these photo ops.
It's very easy for a lot of us to think about advertising. Advertising is often a pejorative word, but as Dr. Rose has mentioned, there are actually quite a lot of good things about it. However, for somebody like me, I look at communications as a whole, and advertising is often just one component of all the different touch points that government will have with Canadians. So it's easy for the media to say there were this many million dollars spent on advertising, which in itself sounds kind of bad, right? We shouldn't be spending anything on advertising, because it's about mind control or propaganda. There's just this inherent sense that it's evil and wrong.
I would suggest that, in some ways, if we actually had the dollar amounts for how much money was being spent on these pseudo events, these photo ops where you have all sorts of government employees planning for an event, where you have people being potentially flown in, you have rooms being rented, you have signs being made.... You have all these things going on, and what's happening is you have very structured speaking notes and information going out to journalists. These events are not really designed for the public. These events are actually designed for the media, so the media can then take that information and go out to the public.
From my perspective, unless we have the dollar amounts for that, it's hard to put in perspective, really, the dollar amounts for advertising. All we hear is millions, and it's hard to understand whether that's good or bad.
Thank you, Mr. Marland.
There's an interesting thing on colours. In Ontario, I'm not sure what our colours are, but I think our licence plates are black, until the colour wears off. I don't know how you deal with the colours, quite honestly, because there are multicoloured signs in advertising. They might bring in at least two and maybe three party colours. We all know the Canadian flag, and if I had my way, the Canadian flag would be on everything. I think that defines us. As we go around the world and as we talk to students who come here from around the world, the Canadian flag represents a whole lot of good things, including the integrity and quality that we provide in Canada.
Governments are a service. They're service industries. You have the colours as an issue here, and then you talked about the feel-good type of advertisements that go out, and you did mention Canada 150. Then there are issues around coming up close to elections. They're two different ones, in my mind. I think that in most cases you would have to separate those. For Canada 150, we did an amazing job in many things in that advertising, and we should be promoting Canada and making people feel good, not only here, but for those who come here. In terms of the tourism, I think that's what we tried to do.
You've said, Mr. Marland, that you aren't sure, but when we're looking at a policy, somebody has to help us be sure about what we're going to do. This question is going to be kind of open-ended, Mr. Chair. I'm hoping that both of you might put some thought into how you could help us with this policy to make it more transparent, and also into when we put forward our multiple colours, not just the ones that go onto signs, and how we can use those in an appropriate way, always remembering that, for government, one job we have is that we're a service provider and also, we promote our country.
I'll leave it at that. If you have any comments, I'd appreciate it.
My thanks to our two guests for being here.
It is indeed a very broad subject that leaves room for many impressions. Unless you tell me otherwise, I do not feel that it is an exact science. There is a great deal of social acceptability in terms of the presentation and the media aspect of the information.
I have written a number of notes in the many years in which I have been involved in politics. The public wants to be informed and wants more information. It is about transparency, of course. I don't want to generalize, but the fact remains that part of the population does not look at the information, does not read the news either, and is not informed. They just know about the headlines in newspapers and the news at a glance. In this day and age, with social media, things are even more fast-paced and it is much more difficult to have access to appropriate information. You often wonder what the source of the information is and doubt the information that is presented.
Any government, regardless of its stripe, wants to provide information to ensure that its actions are known. I personally went into federal politics because I felt that, in my area, in my riding, we did not hear about federal affairs. We did not know what was happening in Ottawa. Today, this has changed dramatically. I do not want to give the impression that I'm blowing my own horn, but I am very active in the media and I send a lot of information to my constituents about programs, about what the government is doing, and about what we have been able to accomplish. Even today, I am about to check a news release that tells my constituents where we are at mid-term and what we have done in the past two years. If we don't release that information, people won't know about our actions and will think that we have done nothing.
What do you think about that? What do we need to do to achieve a balance between the desire to access information, on the one hand, and the need to reduce the amount of information, on the other hand?
I will let you answer in the two and half minutes that I have left.
Mr. Rose, perhaps you can answer first.