The Ships Start Here campaign cost a total $1.4-million. ((CBC))

The communications arm of the Nova Scotia government has seen its budget triple in the last decade, a rate of growth that outstripped other government departments during an era of fiscal restraint.

The province's opposition parties say funding for Communications Nova Scotia needs to be reined in, particularly as they question whether the agency has strayed into partisan messaging.

In 2002, Communications Nova Scotia received about $3 million and had 89 staff listed on its payroll, according to the Finance Department.

A decade later, the agency's budget increased to $9.2 million and it employed 125 people as of March 31, 2012.

Andrew Younger, the Liberal party's critic for Communications Nova Scotia, said the agency should not only be pared down, it needs sweeping change.

"Communications Nova Scotia needs to be more than cut," Younger said. "It needs a complete overhaul in the province."

Chris d'Entremont, the Progressive Conservative house leader, said he also supports cutting back Communications Nova Scotia. He said the agency has become more of an instrument of the NDP than a non-partisan agency.

"What they really do is they run the political lines of the government in power," he said.

"These aren't about government advertising, they're about political advertising."

Tracey Taweel, the associate deputy minister of Communications Nova Scotia, said the increase in its budget is justified because the agency and employees have taken on additional responsibilities.

Provincial departments are asking Communications Nova Scotia to do more, from launching ads about government initiatives to countering false statements on Twitter about government programs, Taweel said.

"As demands for communication product increases, so too does the need for us to support that demand," she said.

She added that part of the growth came after a $3.2-million marketing program was transferred to the agency in 2006-07 from the Department of Economic Development.

While communications spending went up overall over the last 10 years, Taweel says it has decreased since 2008-09 and the agency will be trimmed to 115 staff once the final estimates of this fiscal year are released.

Press release or marketing exercise?

Fred Vallance-Jones, a professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, said forms of communication such as news releases that were once neutral in tone have evolved into marketing exercises intended to drive the government's message.

He said the provincial government's communications have followed a pattern set by the federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I'm seeing the same kind of trend here in Nova Scotia, where more and more of what the public hears has the stamp of central message control on it," he said.

He cites as one example the province's "Better Care Sooner" slogan, which is emblazoned on Nova Scotia Health Department advertising about new health care centres

The motto is also repeatedly used in government and NDP party news releases about various health care programming.

"That's a political message going out.  ... 'We're doing a great job with health care,' and with that they're hoping people will forget all of the problems," he said.

The opposition parties have also objected to the government's "Ships Start Here" campaign, one that the government has vigorously defended as key to winning a $25-billion navy shipbuilding contract in Halifax -- even though Ottawa has said the process was based on merit.

"The trend is disturbing," said Younger, a former advertising executive.

 "What we're seeing is an adoption of the ideal here and in other provinces ... that spending money on communications is more important than spending money on delivering services to residents."

Taweel rejects accusations that Communications Nova Scotia is partisan, saying its duty is to carry out the government's wishes, no matter what party is in power.

"Our job once they are duly elected is to implement whatever agenda they have. That becomes our business plan," she said.

Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L., said there is a global trend of governments engaged in perpetual campaigning, where political slogans and buzz words carry over into the public service.

Marland said provincial and federal governments are unlikely to implement major cuts to communications staff in the near future, despite increased strains on spending, because political leaders recognize the importance of the clear, focused delivery of their messages.

"There's probably more push, more demand for communications people," he said.

Like Vallance-Jones, Marland is also concerned about attempts to blend partisan themes of political parties into public service campaigns.

Marland said he favours Ontario's 2006 law that bans government-paid, politically partisan advertising in media, legislation that is overseen by that province's auditor general.