OPINION: BC Liberals again using the public service for partisan purposes

Government PR issued 681 press releases from Nov. 9, 2016 to Jan. 18, 2017, more than double than in the three previous non-election years

Pre-election PR tsunami
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(This is an updated version of a column that appeared on Jan. 18.)

Crank up your spam filters, ready your arm for a spin-doctor vaccination and prepare to be bragged to, the BC Liberals are coming.

If you are paying close attention to provincial politics in British Columbia then you are either very engaged, a journalist or a masochist.

And if you’re any of those three you may have noticed a veritable tsunami of press releases issued by the provincial government in recent weeks.

I sure have, but the last straw that twigged to the subject was the serious-sounding missive that Environment Minister Mary Polak and Transportation Minister Todd Stone would be at an “important announcement” at Jack Poole Plaza at 9 a.m. on Jan. 18. That “important” announcement was to show off the three new designs for BC Parks licence plates.

Don’t stop the presses.

This is an anecdote best shared via a poster an ICBC office, not something touted via two senior ministers on a business day.

But this is how it goes with an election on the horizon. Every burble of activity in any department, in any ministry, in any corner of the government that can be spun as positive is shared.

So I did some counting.

Six months out from the provincial election on May 9 of this year was Nov. 9, 2016. In the 101-day period from Nov. 9 to Feb. 17, the government’s team of spin doctors sent out 943 press releases. That’s an average of 9.3 a day.

In the three non-election years prior to that, over the same period, they issued 512 releases in 2016, 466 in 2015 and 426 in 2014, for an average of 468 or 4.6 a day.

Four years ago, prior to the 2013 general election over that same period, the BC Liberal-led government issued 614 press releases. A similar pattern? Yup. In 2012, it was 376, in 2011 362 and 2010 367.

And for the small percentage of readers who are really, really paying attention, and who think this sounds familiar, that’s because it should.

“Just sign up for government press releases and you’ll be the recipient of more inbox spam than you’ll get from a Nigerian Viagra dealer.”

That’s from my column on March 21, 2013 in the lead-up to the 40th provincial election.

None of this comes as much of a surprise to University of the Fraser Valley political science professor Hamish Telford. It’s old-fashioned Canadian, pork-barrel political campaigning.

“Suddenly new government money becomes available to renovate the dilapidated curling rink in town!” Telford tells me. “It is distasteful, but also small potatoes.”

What Telford is more concerned about is the slick TV ads recently appearing that purport to tout government programs, spots that are really just campaign advertisements for the BC Liberals.

“Here we see a large expenditure by government for purely partisan purposes,” he says.

Some provinces, Ontario for example, have cracked down on this type of behaviour, requiring all government advertising to be vetted by an independent officer of the legislature. Seems like a good idea.

Worse still, is when actual public policy is put forth that is driven purely by electoral considerations. Telford is thinking here of the 15 per cent property tax on foreign buyers in Metro Vancouver and the first-time home buyer program.

“These are the sorts of ideas that ought to be proposed in a campaign and enacted if the party is afforded a mandate by the people. These sorts of initiatives taken on the fly without a broader policy program can distort public policy and government finances for years if not decades.”

As for press releases, make no mistake, I’d rather have more information, more communication rather than less.

But an unwanted press release can easily be ignored. It is the more insidious use of tax dollars and public policy for purely partisan purposes leading up to an election that should concern the public.

Paul J. Henderson is a reporter for the Chilliwack Progress. He can be reached at paul.henderson@theprogress.com.