According to the Conservatives, your government is awesome

The federal government is spending tens of millions on commercials that make the Tories look good


John Geddes

The soundtrack is bouncy, the skylines broken by majestic mountains or busy construction cranes. The message is relentlessly upbeat. “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” says the voice-over, “is creating jobs, growth and prosperity.” It’s another one of those federal commercials that have been unavoidable for anybody with a TV set since Stephen Harper’s government launched its multi-billion-dollar stimulus program into the teeth of the 2009 recession. The recession ended, but the ads remain. The finance department is planning to spend $16 million on the latest phase of the campaign, which began in mid-September and is slated to run through to the end of next March.

These are not supposed to be political ads. They feature no Conservative politicians. Still, they hardly feel like public-service spots. They aim to set a mood, rather than convey practical information. And get ready for more of the same on other key Tory themes. Under fire from the Opposition NDP for planning to gradually raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67 from 65, starting in 2023, the government has budgeted $8 million for OAS ads. With Harper’s image as an economic leader tied so closely to streamlining approval of natural-resource projects, his government has $5 million earmarked for ads to promote that thrust. “The problem with this kind of advertising,” says Queen’s University politics professor Jonathan Rose, “is that it serves no public policy purpose.”

Not so, argue government officials. When Canadian Press reported the latest federal ad spending plans last week, the finance department defended the campaign as necessary to get out the good word on job-creation measures in the face of economic uncertainty. But critics like Rose, author of Making “Pictures in Our Heads”: Government Advertising in Canada, look for useful information about specific programs, not just feel-good slogans, as the test of a government ad’s legitimacy. “This is really just to tout what the government is doing,” he said, “and draw attention to the governing party’s platform.”

Complaints about incumbent parties using publicly funded ads to bolster their re-election chances are, of course, nothing new. But Ontario remains the only Canadian jurisdiction—in fact, one of very few in the world—to seriously tackle the issue. In 2004, Ontario’s auditor general was given power to vet all provincial ads to make sure they don’t amount to pitches for the party in power. Last year, the watchdog’s ad panel (Rose is a member) approved all but two of 165 advertising submissions from provincial ministries.

But those rare rejections are intriguing. The panel wouldn’t allow a set of ads touting the province’s clean-energy policy, finding that their “primary objective was to foster a positive impression” of the governing Liberals. The reviewers also rescinded their approval of ads on reducing medical wait times after they saw that the provincial Liberals had produced a partisan ad “with strikingly similar visuals on the same subject.”

There’s nothing like that sort of independent screening process for ads in the federal government—or, for that matter, any other province.

Beyond the content of federal ads, serious questions surround how much money is being spent on them. Approved ad budgets for each department are disclosed quarterly on the website of the Treasury Board, the central agency overseeing federal spending. But those quarterly figures don’t seem to be a reliable predictor of actual advertising outlays. In 2010-11, the last year for which final figures are available, $65.4 million in ad spending was approved on a quarterly basis, but $83.3 million was ultimately spent, according to the government’s annual report on advertising. Asked to explain how $17.9 million more was spent that year than initially approved, a Treasury Board official said departments are allowed to dip into their general budgets to top up ad spending.

That final figure of $83.3 million for 2010-11 was nearly 20 per cent higher than the $69.8 million the former Liberal government spent in 2003-04. (Spending was much lower in 2004-05 and 2005-06, the last two years of Liberal rule, but that was largely because much federal advertising was suspended during those years’ election campaigns, as required by government policy.) Ottawa’s ad spending fell in the late stages of the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin era, partly as a result of intense scrutiny following what became known as the sponsorship scandal, which linked federal promotions to partisan wrongdoing.

There’s no scandal to impinge on the current wave of federal ads. So don’t expect the deluge of images of busy workers and blue skies, brought to you by the government of Canada, to let up anytime soon.


According to the Conservatives, your government is awesome

  1. Disgusting waste of taxpayer money.

  2. Multi-millions of OUR money spent to advertize programs no longer in effect? Ahhh…so this is what the Harper Government meant when they said they were *Fiscally Responsible*. Yea, I see that now.

  3. I’m sorry, but these ads are not political. They were made to inspire confidence. I know that, every time I see these ads, I feel more confident in the economy and the direction Canada is headed. I know we’re doing all the right things to make Canada more prosperous, and that we have the right people at the helm to navigate our nation through these tumultuous seas. Heaven forbid that we should dream of changing course now by voting anything but Conservative!

    …hey… wait a second…

    • I agree — I’m now more confident that our government is not acting in the public interest.

  4. Hey idiots (Canadians = idiots), all is well (look at pretty picture, don’t listen to the lies), we present the facts you deduce what you want (idiots + lies to idiots = we are awesome)

  5. Is anyone else appalled that a lowly mail room clerk who has never held a management position in the business world is destroying our country and getting away with it?

    According to Wikipedia, Stephen Harper is the son of an Imperial Oil executive. Working in Imperial Oil’s mail room is apparently the only job Harper has ever had.

    The CalgaryHerald online published last week that Imperial Oil Ltd. is 69% owned by ExxonMobil.

    We are all aware that executives in these kinds of Big Businesses usually receive huge annual bonuses in the form of both cash and stocks, but we do not know how much stock the son inherited from dad or purchased himself.

    Is vast accumulation of wealth Harper’s REAL hidden agenda for these abrupt and protested environmental changes? Is that what using omnibus bills to cover too much territory is for?

    Certainly, family ownership of valuable oil stock would explain Harper’s extreme secretiveness as he uses omnibus bills to dismantle Canadian environmental protections, both on land and offshore. After all, taxpayers would not be pleased to learn that Harper has been enriching himself, his family and his friends when their prosperity relies on destroying our land, water and air.

    Is anyone else appalled that a lowly mail room clerk who has never held a management position is destroying our country and getting away with it?

    • What an insult! Harper is a recognized economist who has tremendous academic credentials. Stating that his only job was as a mail clerk is demeaning. He was an advisor and leader of the National Citizens Coalition a non-partisan group advocating for reforms of parliamentary representation. It is pure happenstance that he benefited from a $50k donation that helped him lead the Reform Alliance party, another non-partisan totally democratic group that still firmly believes that Canada is a socialist welfare state that needs the strong leadership of an anti-union, pro-tax cut, pro-corporate agenda, quite similar the views shared by that most democratic of Italian parties, the Fascists of the 1930’s. He was a founding member of the Reform Party and signed a deal with McKay in order to unify the right by promising to retain the Progressive branch of the party, who then afterwards killed off this socialist branch of conservatism. . He has reformed parliament in the way it works by attacking and maligning all of his opponents by labeling them as pure academics without any true work experience, by suspending parliamnet whe he can win the confidence of the house and who claims that the contempt finding of his group was simply an error in the way votes are counted in the house, being that once you get elected with the most seats, you are not beholding to anyone. He had in the past complained about his difficulty understanding a 20 page omnibus bill but now has honed his skills and reading abilities in order to make us understand a 450 page omnibus bill. He has managed to destroy parliamentary process and has us believing that any form of coalition is simply a coup d’état, something he accomplished when he ruined David Orchard’s career when attempting to lead the Progressives. He is a master swindler and con artist who lives for the day when all Liberals in this country go to jail unreported crimes. Hail Harper!!!

    • Stephen Harper is a voodoo economist, trained in the University of Calgary, the top voodoo economics department in the country. That’s the department that has top voodoo economist, Jack Mintz. Harper believes in trickle-down economics – ie the rich will give crumbs to the rest of society and everyone will be better off as a result.
      So far that is true. The 99 percent are poorer while the 1 percent is doing just fine, thanks to Harper’s policy.

  6. Canada’s Action Plan has produced few jobs despite giving $60 billion in tax breaks to corporations. What a waste of money!

  7. it’s utter BS, conservatives in name only…there is no need to be spending this kind of money on such ads.

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