Back-to-school ad blitz rankles opposition

By Sabrina Nanji August 26, 2020

Opposition critics want to pull the plug on the Ford government’s new back-to-school advertising campaign, saying the cash could be better spent on the plan itself. Both the NDP and Liberals called it “propaganda.”

But Premier Doug Ford defended the ads, saying it’s important to communicate school reopening plans to parents, students and educators. 

“Imagine if we didn’t have any ads and no one knew what was going on. That’d be terrible,” Ford said Tuesday, dismissing the opposition’s criticism as “playing politics.” 

The radio spots are pretty innocuous. They highlight consultations with doctors, health officials, school boards and educators that helped build “a comprehensive plan to keep our kids safe,” and lay out some of the major nuggets such as masking, sanitizing and staffing. There are also ads in print and online. 

As for the NDP and Liberals’ assertion that constitutes “propaganda” — Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk isn’t so convinced. 

In an interview, Lysyk told Queen’s Park Today she signed off on the ads (after requesting an unspecified change to comply with standards) and she believes the information provided is useful to the public. 

Her office screens for partisan colours, politician cameos and whether it’s clear who foot the bill.

The AG said the ads stand up under current rules — and still would if she had her old oversight powers over government advertising that were watered down by the previous Grit rulers. The PCs campaigned on a pledge to restore the AG’s veto over partisan ads, but more than two years into their mandate, that hasn’t happened yet. 

The cash comes from the $10-million bucket for public awareness campaigns about Covid that was earmarked back in March, but it’s likely costs have increased as the pandemic drags on. 

The full cost of the campaign will eventually come out in the public accounts this fall. The auditor general also looks at government advertising in her annual report. 

Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford promised to meet with school boards to address their confusion over ever-evolving messaging on reopenings. 

“I want to get on a phone call with … all the school board chairs across the province, their deputy chairs, the directors of education, and we’re going to lay out [the plan] very, very clear, and we’re going to answer any questions until there’s no confusion,” Ford told reporters.