Conservatives commit $16M to 'action plan' ads while cutting programs
Approved funds just part of multi-million ad blitz by federal government
The Conservative government has approved tens of millions of dollars in "economic action plan" ads this year even as it cites fiscal restraint to cut programs such as scientific research and environmental monitoring.
While Finance officials are refusing to disclose the budget for the current blitz, contracts listed on the department's website suggest the saturation ad campaign is costing taxpayers $14 million.
A Treasury Board document shows that cabinet previously approved $16 million in "economic action plan" advertising in the first quarter of this year.
That doesn't include $5 million approved for a "better jobs" ad campaign, $8 million to sell Canadians on cuts to old age security, and $5 million to promote "responsible resource development" — the slogan given to an environmental assessment system that was cut back and restructured in the last budget. All the measures are promoted on the government's "economic action plan" web site.
The Conservatives also approved $4.5 million for War of 1812 advertising this year.
In all, the federal cabinet has already approved more than $64 million in ad spending for 2012-13 — seemingly well on its way to matching the $83.3 million they spent in 2010-11, the last year for which complete numbers are available.
When the Conservatives came to office in 2006, they inherited a federal advertising budget of $41.3 million — a total they have doubled, and in one case more than tripled, every year they've been in power to date.
The ad spending comes as Treasury Board President Tony Clement oversees sweeping cuts to government programs in an across-the-board belt-tightening exercise.
World-renowned programs such as the Experimental Lakes Area are being axed for savings of $2 million annually, while the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was cut to save $5.5 million.
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, called it "disturbing" that millions are being spent on government ads when First Nations children go to school in mould-ridden classrooms.
"I find these types of expenditures absolutely unacceptable to me, not only as someone who's running an NGO and cares about the inequities that kids are experiencing, but also as a taxpayer," Blackstock said in an interview.
"What I want to see is those taxpayer funds going into better health care, better education, helping children ... not to the promotion of government agendas."
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat web site states: "The Government of Canada's approach to advertising is guided by the principles of value for money, transparency, and accountability."
The latest ad blitz trumpets government policy as the key to economic success, while directing viewers to a government web site for more specific information.
"Canada's economic action plan is creating jobs, growth and prosperity," states the ad.
Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP Treasury Board critic, says that doesn't meet the test of a public service announcement.
"When we're announcing a supposed result as opposed to something Canadians need, we're attempting to convince Canadians that this particular government is doing their job," Ravignat said in an interview.
"That's not my understanding of the point of government advertising. And that's the problem."
A spokesman for Jim Flaherty's Finance department defended the current national campaign in an email to The Canadian Press.
"In an uncertain global economy, it is important that all Canadians are aware of the initiatives to support the economy and jobs in the economic action plan," wrote spokesman Jack Aubry.
Ad budget under wraps
While government departments, including Finance, have routinely disclosed the cost of past ad campaigns upon request, Aubry would not reveal a budget for the current ad's production or media buy.
"Precise costs will only be known once all of the invoices have been received," he wrote. "Details regarding government advertising will be published by the government in the annual report on government advertising activities."
That means Canadian taxpayers will have to wait until 2014 to learn the cost of the government's fall 2012 media blitz.
The most recent annual government advertising report was released Aug. 31, exactly 17 months after the 2010-11 fiscal year end it detailed.
Ottawa spent $83.3 million on advertising that year, including almost $23 million on "economic action plan" ads.
The 2009-10 annual ad report wasn't released until last December, 21 months after the end of the fiscal year.
Public Works said it could not provide a timeline for the annual ad report on fiscal 2011-12, which wrapped up more than six months ago.
By contrast, the previous Liberal government tabled its 2002-03 annual ad report in the fall of 2003, roughly six months after the fiscal year end.
For 2003-04 — at the height of the sponsorship scandal that revolved around government ad expenses — the Liberals didn't release the annual government ad report until spring 2005, a full 12 months after the fiscal year end.