An advertising campaign by Premier Doug Ford’s government that has been criticized as partisan self-promotion is costing taxpayers about $8 million, CBC News has learned. 

Government officials previously refused to share the cost of the high-profile “It’s Happening Here” ads, which have aired in such choice television timeslots as the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Emmy Awards and the NHL all-star game. 

CBC News then sought to obtain the price tag through a freedom of information request. 

The response from the Ministry of Finance puts the estimated total costs for producing the ads at $3,831,352, and the media spending (such as TV and radio airtime, billboard space and online ad placement) at $4,097,528. 

Critics are blasting the Ford government for spending public money on advertising that they say doesn’t provide the public with useful information. 

“Governments shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars trying to puff themselves up or convince people that they’re doing a great job,” said NDP leader Marit Stiles in an interview. 

WATCH | The 60-second version of the Ontario government’s new TV ad: 

Government of Ontario’s new TV ad ‘It’s happening here’

This advertisement, paid for by Ontario taxpayers, has aired in prime timeslots, including the NHL all-star game and the Grammy Awards.

The ads tout Ontario as “a place where it’s all happening” and list off government accomplishments such as “building new roads and highways.”  

Stiles accuses the government of gaslighting the public with the ad campaign’s messaging. 

“It’s really outrageous that the government would choose to spend this kind of money on what are essentially partisan ads to convince Ontarians that things are OK when they really aren’t,” she said.

Ford government promised to reverse rule change

Provincial law used to prohibit the government from running such advertising campaigns. 

Under then-premier Dalton McGuinty, the Liberals brought in the Government Advertising Act in 2004, which gave the auditor general responsibility for approving ad campaigns. 

That law banned ads if their primary purpose was “to foster a positive impression of the governing party.” 

Premier Doug Ford steps through a doorway into a room with Ontario and Toronto flags in the background.
A government spokesperson said the ad campaign is ‘designed to instill pride in the accomplishments of Team Ontario and confidence in the province’s economy.’ (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But in 2015, the government of then-premier Kathleen Wynne watered down the law, allowing the government to put just about any messaging in taxpayer-funded ads, so long as they don’t use the names or faces of a politician or a party logo. 

Ford’s Progressive Conservatives made an election promise in 2018 to reverse the changes to the advertising rules, but the Ford government hasn’t kept that promise. 

Instead, the government has since spent at least $38 million on ads that the auditor said would not have been approved under the earlier version of the law, including a 2019 ad campaign attacking the federal carbon price and a campaign that aired in the run-up to the 2022 provincial election called “Ontario Is Getting Stronger”.

That’s in addition to the $7.9 million price tag for the new “It’s Happening Here” campaign. 

‘Not a good use of taxpayer money’: former auditor

CBC News asked the government whether the cost figure covers the entirety of the ongoing campaign or only the amount spent so far. Officials did not provide an answer. 

“Marketing is a tool that all governments at all levels and of all partisan stripes use to communicate messages to people,” said a spokesperson for Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy in an email. “The campaign is designed to instill pride in the many accomplishments of Team Ontario and confidence in the province’s economy.” 

A man in a white shirt and dress pants is depicted flying across a river valley toward a broken down wooden bridge.
In 2016 then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s government spent $5.7 million in public funds on advertising to promote a proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan that was never created. (Government of Ontario)

Former auditor general Bonnie Lysyk says the ads are “not a good use of taxpayer money” because they don’t serve the purpose of informing the public about how to access government programs or services. 

“It’s basically an ad that would pat the government on its back,” said Lysyk in an interview. “Partisan advertising is fine. But the issue is, should the taxpayer pay for it? It should be be paid for by the governing party or opposition parties.”

On Monday, the legislature is expected to consider a bill from the NDP that would bring back the stricter rules barring all forms of publicly funded partisan advertising. 

The NDP bill is word-for-word identical to a bill that Sylvia Jones (now Ford’s health minister and deputy premier) tabled when she and the PCs were in opposition in 2018. 

“We’re going to force a vote on Monday on that bill to see if we can get the government to do what they always said they were going to do and ban this kind of partisan advertising with government dollars,” said Stiles. 



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