Thursday, March 11, 2010

Harper government spending at least $39 million taxpayer dollars on partisan advertising for Economic Action Plan

Full-page ad promoting Economic Action Plan,
StarPhoenix, Mar. 5, 2010

Treasury Board table showing initial $34 million
Economic Action Plan advertising spending

A story that’s getting little press coverage is the Harper government’s determination to blow tens of millions of taxpayer dollars flogging its Economic Action Plan (EAP).

The Treasury Board in the first quarter of 2009-10 approved the allocation of $65.4 million to various departments and agencies to spend on advertising. The department’s website shows that $34 million of this was used to promote the EAP:

▪ Canada Revenue Agency – $7 million
▪ Finance Canada – $12 million (includes $2 million for website)
▪ Human Resources and Skills Development Canada – $7 million
▪ Infrastructure Canada – $8 million

The Globe and Mail reported on March 3, 2010, that the Harper government poured an additional $5 million into the pot bringing the total spent so far on advertising to $39 million – a 15 percent increase. At least two departments received some of this extra money: Finance Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. [Tories give $5-million bump to stimulus ads (Globe and Mail, March 3, 2010)]

In days immediately following Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s tabling of Budget 2010 on March 4, full-page ads promoting the EAP began appearing in major newspapers across the country. The list includes: Victoria Times-Colonist, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Sun, Edmonton Sun, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Winnipeg Free Press, Windsor Star, London Free Press, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Montreal Gazette, Cape Breton Post (Sydney), and The Telegram in St. John’s.

The advertising campaign, which also includes TV, radio and billboards, has faced harsh criticism from the outset.

In September 2009, the Canadian Press (CP) revealed that the Harper government was spending more than five times as many taxpayer dollars on promoting its economic plan than it was on informing Canadians about the H1N1 virus and how to avoid infection.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said it had a total marketing budget of just $6.5 million to raise public awareness about the flu pandemic.

The CP contacted the four federal departments receiving EAP advertising funds but all inquiries were directed to the Privy Council Office (PCO), the non-partisan bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

PCO failed to respond to a written list of questions from the CP over a three-day period the previous week. [Tories spend 5 times more on economy ads than H1N1 ads (The Canadian Press, September 20, 2009)]

Three weeks later the CP published a story saying the PCO has never been comfortable administering the website for the EAP. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was informed of its misgivings at the time of the January 2009 federal budget.

“Those misgivings were heard, but overruled,” the CP said.

Both PCO and the PMO vigorously denied the story – even though the source of the claim came from inside the normally secretive PCO.

The CP went on to say that the EAP website “has been widely criticized as an exercise in Conservative propaganda on the taxpayers’ dime.”

The news agency interviewed a number of past and present government insiders who said “they’ve never seen anything so blatant as the current use of the office for self-promotion.”

They were afraid to speak on the record, though, for fear of reprisals.

The CP noted that PCO “doesn’t even have a line item accounting for the cost of development of the economic action plan website. The $2-million budget went to Finance, but PCO developed the website with frequent input from the PMO.” [Sources: Privy Council objected to government ad campaign (The Canadian Press, October 10, 2009)]

It should be noted that PCO requested an additional $3.96 million in the 2009-10 Supplementary Estimates (B) – tabled in the House of Commons on November 4, 2009 – “to support the implementation of a government-wide communications strategy for Canada’s Economic Action Plan.” It’s unclear whether these funds are over and above the $5 million that was reported by the Globe and Mail. If it is, then that would push the Harper government’s advertising spending on the EAP to $42.96 million.

The EAP website has been heavily criticized for its Tory-blue government background and for the number of times the prime minister and members of his cabinet are mentioned. The concerns are well founded.

A search of the website using Google produced 405 hits for ‘Stephen Harper’ and 163 references to the ‘Harper government.’

Cabinet ministers whose departments receive EAP advertising funds are well represented on the website, too: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – 179 hits, Transport and Infrastructure Minister John Baird – 113 hits, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley – 449 hits, and former National Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn – 150 hits.

The current National Revenue Minister is Keith Ashfield (appointed January 19, 2010). As former Minister of State for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency he had 493 hits.

The EAP website is also littered with photos of Harper attending various announcements around the country.

One of the creepier, more bizarre, events took place in Ottawa on July 29, 2009, when Harper visited a local hardware store that was participating in a nationwide campaign to inform Canadians about how to apply for the Home Renovation Tax Credit, a key component of the federal government’s economic action plan.

Harper was joined by a traditional looking family unit – a father, mother and two young children. Just the kind of wholesome, family values oriented image that appeal to the Conservative Party base. Photos of the visit (posted on the PM’s website) show that even when he’s trying to be casual, Harper still comes across as wooden and out of place. The reaction of the youngest child to Harper’s looming presence is particularly noticeable.

Harper’s visit was peddled as a ‘public event,’ yet the public wasn’t allowed within a country mile of the man. It was strictly a photo opportunity – no questions – and open only to media photographers who were required to present proper identification for accreditation.

The Globe and Mail covered the event and weren’t very impressed: “The Harper PMO’s secrecy around photo ops backfired this week. Photographers who wanted to cover Mr. Harper’s event trumpeting his home renovation tax-credit program were told to meet at a certain time behind a certain building and they would be taken by van to a certain location. It turns out the secret place was a Rona store in Ottawa’s south end, where Mr. Harper talked up the credit. The photo op didn’t get much play in the media. It didn’t help that the van left without a couple of photogs, who were just minutes late.” [Another help-wanted sign nailed up on PMO’s revolving door (Globe and Mail, August 1, 2009)]

For the record, media were asked to gather behind the Confederation Building no later than 8:15 a.m. in order to be directed to the event location.

PM Stephen Harper peddling Home Renovation
Tax Credit at RONA in Ottawa, July 29, 2009

Align CenterEconomic Action Plan website
being used for partisan purposes, June 11, 2009


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