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British Columbia faces possible class action over government ad blitz

Premier Christy Clark answers questions from the media during a press conference from her office at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 13, 2017.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Two Vancouver criminal lawyers are suing British Columbia, on behalf of its citizens, in an attempt to stop the government's pre-election advertising, which they allege unfairly benefits the incumbent Liberal party.

Paul Doroshenko and David Fai say their proposed class-action suit, filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday morning, is an attempt to get the BC Liberals to pay taxpayers back some of the roughly $16-million the government expects to spend on ads in the current fiscal year, which is roughly double what it first budgeted.

Eventually, they said at a news conference on the steps of the courthouse, a trial is needed for a judge to rule on how many radio, TV, print and social media spots veered from spreading public awareness into partisan propaganda. In the meantime, the pair say they are seeking an injunction stopping any further non-essential advertising from the government.

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"If you look at the message in that advertising, it's not necessary and it's basically designed to promote the BC Liberal Party," Mr. Doroshenko said. "That money that they're spending? It's your money, it's my money, it's money that could be spent for a legitimate bona fide reason."

Plaintiff David Trapp, a retired IT professional, said he approached the two lawyers, his friends, about bringing the lawsuit forward after being inundated with a government ad blitz while at home recuperating from colon cancer treatment last year.

He said the tag line "Your opportunity is here" that ended each commercial did not square with his recent experience in the health-care system.

"That's the kind of thing that rubs me raw the whole time," he said at the news conference.

The lawyers say any B.C. taxpayer could join the lawsuit if it is certified. The pair say they are working pro bono and trying to crowdfund $30,000 online to pay for filing fees and court costs, but will cover any remaining costs themselves if they fall short of their goal.

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Andrew Wilkinson, a Vancouver MLA and the minister in charge of government advertising, said in an e-mailed statement that the lawsuit is political in nature.

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"The issues should be addressed in the election and not in the court room," his statement said.

It said the government has worked with the province's Auditor-General to make sure each information campaign is fact-based and informs the public about important government programs and priorities, such as British Columbia's response to the opioid overdose epidemic and potential changes to medical premiums.

Emile Scheffel, head spokesperson for the Liberals, who are also named as defendants in the suit, declined an opportunity to comment on the legal challenge Monday.

NDP Leader John Horgan said his party has had legislation rejected by the governing party that would force any taxpayer-funded ads to be vetted for partisanship by the auditor-general if they run in the four months before an election.

"I support citizens that are standing up and saying, 'This is gross waste of money,'" he said in a phone interview.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said this latest lawsuit shows how the province lags behind others in policing campaign financing rules.

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Norman Ruff, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Victoria who has studied B.C. politics since 1968, agreed, saying the constant repetition of the government message helps the ruling party.

"There's a sort of double irony to the situation," he said. "Not only have the Liberals managed to amass a huge war chest, because of the lack of restrictions on party financing, they have the audacity to supplement it with public funds."

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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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