The B.C. Liberal government spent more than $20.5 million on advertising for the year ended March 31, but only $1.6 million of it was considered statutory.
Information released on Aug. 22 with the Public Accounts by NDP Finance Minister Carole James showed that $2.6 million was charged to federal taxpayers under a labour accord. Still, the central government’s ad spending tripled since 2014-2015, mainly driven by the 2017 election.
Ads crafted to embellish the image of the party that governed B.C. since 2001 rankled NDP, Green and independent MLAs and drew critical comments from auditor general Carol Bellringer before the May 9 election. Except for admitting they had doubled the budget to $15 milllion late last year, the BC Liberals stubbornly refused to comment on costs and delayed many documents sought under freedom of information laws until after the election. The NDP government under Premier John Horgan has promised to enact new advertising restrictions.
The BC Liberal government claimed from late fall, all the way through the election campaign, that it had no choice but to increase the advertising budget because it needed to warn the public about the opioid crisis. Yet the documents show only $1.8 million was spent on that campaign. Likewise for other public safety campaigns, such as forest fire prevention ($875,000), anti-guns and gangs ($249,000), earthquake preparation ($58,000) and distracted driving education ($10,000).
The 2016-2017 spreadsheet shows the government also spent $195,000 on recruitment advertising, gave $1 million for Elections BC to promote the 2017 election and doled out $802,000 in various creative, production, marketing, advertising and poll contracts for miscellaneous campaigns. The latter included $15,000 in billings by Hogan Millar Media, a company that worked on the last two BC Liberal election campaigns.
Most of the expenditures — $15.38 million worth — were for four companies to produce and place ads favourable to the BC Liberals, under the Our Opportunity Is Here branding during the fiscal year. The so-called B.C. Services campaign, which began in late November 2015, sparked a class action lawsuit in March filed by lawyers Paul Doroshenko and David Fai on behalf of plaintiff David Trapp. They want a judge to order the BC Liberal Party to reimburse the public treasury after diverting taxpayers’ funds from healthcare and education to benefit their failed re-election campaign.
Public Accounts show total payments for the campaign of $9.1 million to ad buyer Vizeum, $2.5 million to online ad buyer Kimbo Design, $894,000 to creative and production agency Saint Bernadine Mission Communications, and $503,000 for translation by ad agency Response Advertising.
Work on the campaign was not put out to public tender. In 2013, the companies applied to join a list of preferred suppliers for work as-and-when needed. Senior bureaucrats with well-publicized BC Liberal political backgrounds ultimately approved the preferred suppliers. The two deputy ministers that oversaw government advertising during the Christy Clark administration, Athana Mentzelopoulos and John Paul Fraser, were fired the day before the NDP government assumed power on July 18. The NDP appointed Evan Lloyd as deputy minister in charge of Government Communications and Public Engagement. He held a similar position in the 1990s under Mike Harcourt’s NDP administration.
Kimbo’s president, Kim Pickett, worked on Clark’s leadership campaign in 2011 and provided branding for the BC Liberal Party. Response president Jatinder Rai is a longtime BC Liberal strategist who, like Pickett, was on Clark’s team when she made an unsuccessful run for the Vancouver NPA mayoral nomination in 2005.
The companies also appeared in the master list of all central government supplier payments for the fiscal year, showing a combined $19.14 million in billings: Vizeum ($13.25 million), Kimbo ($3.27 million), Saint Bernadine ($1.54 million) and Response ($1.07 million).
For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the government reported spending $12.45 million, up from $5.67 million a year earlier. The Our Opportunity Is Here campaign cost $4.98 million in its first year and involved the same four companies. The two-year campaign cost a total $20.36 million.
Kimbo unsuccessfully fought in 2016 to keep its invoices secret, but the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that the information must be released. Kimbo claimed publication of its preferred rates for government would harm its business, but it offered no evidence to back-up the claim.