Tax season may be months away, but the federal government has already taken to the airwaves to inform Canadians about upcoming tax breaks for families.
Canada’s 150th anniversary is even further in the distance. But Canadians have already been bombarded with feel-good messages about the upcoming birthday — 2½ years from now.
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Critics say these multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded ad campaigns that launched online and on air over the past few months appear timed for one main goal: to get Canadians to vote Conservative in the next federal election in October.
“Frankly, it’s partisan election preparation. It’s in the nature of propaganda in order to strengthen the Conservative brand in the final year before the general election,” says Mathieu Ravignat, federal NDP treasury board critic.
Strong. Proud. Free
Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen's University, says a slogan used in both campaigns appears as if it was lifted from the Conservative Party playbook. Television ads end with the tag line: “Canada, Strong. Proud. Free.”
'It’s in the nature of propaganda in order to strengthen the Conservative brand in the final year before the general election. ' — NDP treasury board critic Mathieu Ravignat
The 2011 Conservative Party election platform stated it supported “a Canada strong and free …proud of its history.” The Conservative Party’s website says it stands “for a Canada that is strong, united, independent, and free” (emphasis added). It also notes that Stephen Harper is dedicated to building a “stronger” and “prouder” Canada.
“They are reinforcing the message that ... the party stands for. And so they’re getting the benefits of all this free publicity on the backs of taxpayers,” says Rose.
He says the family tax benefits campaign also reinforces one of the Conservative Party’s main mandates, “supporting families.”
The party’s 2011 platform stated that “Canadians work hard to provide for their families.” The current 2014 commercial for tax benefits tells viewers that “across Canada, families are working hard.” The election platform also talked about tax breaks “putting money back in the pocket of taxpayers.” The current ad’s voiceover says the new government tax measures “could help put thousands of dollars back into your pocket.”
Rose also takes issue with the timing of the tax campaign, which began in early November and runs until Dec. 11. Canadians can’t access any new perks until they file their 2014 tax returns, likely next March or April. The beefed-up child care expense deduction won’t even kick in until the 2015 tax season. The enhanced child care benefit has yet to be approved by Parliament and, even if passed, parents still won't get their cheques until July.
“There’s nothing citizens can do now. So [the campaign is] completely meaningless. What it does, however, is prime citizens about how great the federal government is in providing benefits for the family,” says Rose.
The Finance Department says there’s nothing suspect about the campaign’s timing. Even if Canadians can’t access the tax benefits now, department spokeswoman Stephanie Rubec points out that a couple of the perks “are effective as of 2014” and that the other ones are coming soon.
“It is thus timely to inform Canadians about these upcoming tax cuts and increased benefits so that they can fully benefit from them,” she said in a statement.
The Prime Minister's Office also says there's nothing suspect about the campaign's motive: "These ads are intended to ensure that Canadian families are aware of the benefits available to them, which allows them to plan and budget accordingly," says Jason MacDonald, spokesman with the PMO.
The Finance Ministry would not put a price tag on its tax-break ads. Government records show the department was allocated $10 million for advertising in 2014.
NDP MP Ravignat also finds it strange that the Conservative government created ads to promote Canada’s 150th anniversary more than two years in advance. In addition to an extensive online campaign, TV ads appeared earlier this fall and will run again in January.
“The timing is suspicious, and it is clear that they want to associate themselves with I guess the glory of that particular celebration. And it is an assumption that [this government] will be there in two years," says Ravignat.
The Heritage Ministry was allocated $7.2 million in 2014 for Canada’s 150th anniversary advertising.
The 60-second version of the commercial showcases the pre-Confederation Charlottetown and Quebec conferences combined with emotive scenes of a modern Canada Day fireworks celebration and Sidney Crosby playing hockey.
When asked why a campaign is underway now, the Heritage Department said this year marks the 150th anniversary of the two conferences: “The Charlottetown and Quebec conferences were key events that led to the creation of Confederation — and are both pivotal moments that helped to shape our country: Strong, Proud, and Free,” said department spokesman Tim Warmington in a statement.