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.