Government ad spending on economy balloons under Tories

An examination by The Canadian Press reveals ad budgets geared to promoting economic success have ballooned under the Conservatives since the 2008 global downturn.
A government action plan sign is seen in Mississippi Mills, Ont. An examination by The Canadian Press reveals ad budgets geared to promoting economic success have soared under the Conservatives since the 2008 global downturn. (File/Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the economy is his top priority, he has the advertising spending to support his claim.

An examination by The Canadian Press reveals ad budgets geared to promoting economic success have ballooned under the Conservatives since the 2008 global downturn.

The latest blitz of "economic action plan" ads, which blanketed the airwaves on Super Bowl Sunday, comes from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada — one of the big advertising budget winners under the Harper government.

Average annual ad spending by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, or HRSDC, was up 72 per cent in the four years following the 2008 recession, compared to the five years that preceded it.

Spending by the Finance Department was up 58 per cent, while advertising by the Canada Revenue Agency almost tripled.

The numbers come from departmental breakdowns of annual advertising expenditures from 2002-03 through 2011-12, which were released last week in response to questions from Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP Treasury Board critic.

Government ad buys are "acceptable in the context of a change to a program or service, but that's clearly not what's going on," Ravignat said in an interview.

He called the increased ad spending "inappropriate" and "not very respectful to taxpayers' money."

Ads have common theme

Whether the ads promote new government programs or services is debatable. The ads have ranged from ongoing skills training to the promotion of old tax breaks that pre-date the recession.

The common theme is economic prosperity.

"For you, for me, for all of us, the economy is still job one," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told MPs and senators last week as the TV cameras rolled at the first Conservative caucus of the winter sitting of Parliament.

His spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, said the advertising is "meant to inform Canadians of the opportunities available to them and to make sure that they have the information they need to take advantage of government programs."

"This advertising has tended to focus on the economy in recent years owing to the impacts of the global recession, but has also included efforts on issues like health (Healthy Canadians, H1N1), veterans and services to newcomers to Canada," MacDougall added in an email.

Health and defence consistent ad buyers

Health Canada and National Defence have consistently been among the government's top advertisers over the years, and their average annual spending on either side of the 2008 recession has remained little changed.

Veterans Affairs ramped up ad spending from virtually nil to $2.5 million in 2009-10, a total it then surpassed in each of the next two years.

While critics such as Ravignat have long complained about partisan advantage in the government's "economic action plan" campaign, a new poll doesn't necessarily indicate much partisan gain.

The Harris-Decima telephone survey of just over 1,000 respondents found that seven per cent said the government was doing an excellent job on the economy; another 30 per cent said the government was doing a good job.

The majority of respondents were less impressed, with 43 per cent saying the government "is doing only a fair job on the economy," and 17 per cent saying it's doing a poor job, Harris-Decima said.

All the feel-good economic advertising "probably makes people feel a little taken for granted," Ravignat said.

"Because truly Canadians know what their economic situation is, they've being hit hard at various levels. And to be told that things are going well in the present climate, it's just not true."

The ad spending data does not include the current fiscal year, 2012-13, for which Treasury Board last spring approved $16 million in "economic action plan" advertising.

There was also another $5 million for a "better jobs" campaign by HRSDC, $8 million for the promotion of cuts to old age security, and $5 million for Natural Resources Canada to promote "responsible resource development."

Natural Resources Canada also spent more than $5 million on advertising in 2011-12, following years of very modest ad budgets.

Indeed, Natural Resources provides a vivid example of how changing government priorities are reflected in ad budgets and campaigns.

The last time the department spent significant ad money was in 2002-03 under the Liberals, when it rang up $21 million in advertising — most of it on a climate change campaign.

Fast forward a decade and Natural Resources is again spending significant dollars — but this time the focus is oilsands development and pipeline construction.