Skeena BC Liberal Ellis Ross leads all 87 members of the legislature in the category of advertising and communications.
The ex-chief councillor of the Haisla Nation racked-up $20,135 in spin spending for the six months ended Sept. 30, 2018, according to a summary on the Legislative Assembly website. That is almost four times more than the average $5,400 spent by the rest of B.C.’s MLAs on advertising and communications and almost three times more than the $7,067 that Ross spent for his first 10 months in office after winning the northwest coast riding in the 2017 provincial election.
Ross is a regular advertiser in Black Press’s Northern Sentinel (Kitimat) and Terrace Standard newspapers. His office was invoiced more than $7,000 during the six-month period. Rather than a traditional summary of riding office services, community events and achievements in the Legislature, Ross uses his taxpayer-funded column as a soapbox critical of the NDP government and its Green allies. Here are some examples:
- On Jan. 10, 2019, under the headline “NDP ignores the rule of law,” Ross wrote: [Forests Minister Doug] Donaldson is reminding British Columbians that the NDP is still very much an activist party unwilling to defend the province as a whole.
- “Get ready to pay more in 2019” (Nov. 29, 2018): The new government in Victoria is throwing a wrench into the works by blindly following everything contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People without defining it.
- “Play fair on proportional representation” (May 10, 2018): This is a government that wants to install a system of government that will concentrate the power in the lower mainland where all the NDP and Green seats are located.
- “LNG is the pathway to a greener future” (April 26, 2018): Quite simply the Green Party refuses to recognize that LNG is a pathway to a greener economy.
Invoices also show taxpayers were charged $4,500 for more than 300 of Ross’s radio and TV ads, mainly from June through August. The 30-second spots appeared on Bell Media’s ez ROCK and CJFW stations. His two-minute long “MLA Minute” spots aired during CTV affiliate CFTK TV newscasts. Silvertip Signs and Frozen North Developments charged a combined $7,000 to create and host a billboard ad by Highway 37, the route between Kitimat and Terrace.
Ross did not respond to interview requests, but his spending garnered at least one complaint. In a Facebook message last Dec. 10, Ross wrote: “Somebody in Prince Rupert is complaining that my articles in our local newspaper are political so the Legislature is looking into me. Someone wants me to be a bit quieter.”
IntegrityBC’s Dermod Travis said government funds for MLAs are not intended to replace party funds.
“If he is going to use these funds in a way to sponsor his communications with constituents, he should ensure those communications are non-partisan and focus specifically on government programs in a fair and balanced manner,” Travis said. “And not use it as a vehicle to promote his BC Liberal candidacy and his Liberal ties.”
MLAs regulate themselves: clerk’s office
Advertising spending is likely to come under the microscope in the wake of Speaker Darryl Plecas’s Jan. 21-released report on corruption at the Legislature. The Legislative Assembly Management Committee supported Plecas’s call for forensic audits. Its next meeting is Feb. 21. The agenda has not been released, but the all-party committee is expected to discuss the status of suspended clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, who are also under RCMP investigation.
The rules are clear: Content of constituency advertisements, according to the Members’ Guide to Policy and Resources, “is restricted to outlining constituency office activities, and the role played by the Member in the legislative process. Members may not print or mail, at the expense of the Legislative Assembly, any material seeking financial support or containing any identification or information of a partisan, political nature.”
However, nobody on staff in the Clerk’s office is looking out for taxpayers when it comes to partisan-flavoured ad spending.
theBreaker.news sought comment from acting clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd and executive financial officer Hilary Woodward. They did not respond. Another official, who asked not to be named in print, told theBreaker.news that responsibility for compliance with Legislature advertising rules rests with MLAs, their constituency office staff, and their respective caucuses.
“What is constituted as partisan or political may sometimes be subjective and open to the interpretation, and the decision is made at the discretion and judgment of the Member,” said the prepared statement. “Legislative Assembly administrative support staff do not have a review role in this regard, but do provide interpretive guidance if a Member or their staff asks for advice on what may be permissible for communications paid by constituency office funds.”
Only five other ridings have fewer registered voters than Skeena and its 20,002. Ross succeeded three-term NDP MLA Robin Austin, who did not run again. The Green-supported NDP toppled the BC Liberal dynasty in the historic June 29, 2017 confidence vote, two weeks after Ross became the Minister of Natural Gas Development and Responsible for Housing.
BC Liberal MLAs were the top five biggest ad spenders during the year ended March 31, 2018: Coralee Oakes ($27,558); Linda Reid ($26,558); Jane Thornthwaite ($24,174); Greg Kyllo ($23,409); and Simon Gibson ($21,617).
None, however, could compare with 2018-elected leader Andrew Wilkinson. theBreaker.news exclusively reported in 2017 that the Vancouver Quilchena MLA spent a whopping $58,692 on spin before the 2017 election. He blew more than half the money ($30,383.80) on a late-December 2016 to early-February 2017 ad blitz on CKNW and CFMI. Wilkinson used the ads to promote a government website about housing programs at the same time as his own Advanced Education ministry was spending millions of dollars buying pre-election ads for the government’s loan scheme for first time buyers. The NDP has yet to fulfil promises to control government advertising.
Travis said newspapers and newsletters are the best advertising vehicles for MLAs. An urban MLA that buys radio or TV spots ends up buying more audience outside the riding than inside the riding.
“That is, in essence, pouring money down the drain,” Travis said. “If you do the ad in such a way so that it benefits your colleagues, then you’ve obviously just acknowledged that this is a partisan ad. So it should be paid for by the party, not the taxpayers.”
MLAs spent a combined $5.2 million on their office operations in the first six months of 2018, including $483,002 on ads.
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