OTTAWA — The latest federal spending estimates show that four federal government departments have been given another $11 million for advertising as the current fiscal year-end approaches.
The ad spending splurge comes amid large campaigns promoting Conservative family tax measures that have not yet been approved by Parliament and aggressive Defence department recruitment ads that dovetail with current Conservative anti-terrorism messaging.
In total, the Conservative government has now committed $65 million to advertising this fiscal year, which ends March 31.
The total would be higher but Industry Canada appears to have thought better of spending $6.5 million earmarked for a “consumer initiatives” campaign, returning the money to the overall ad envelope to be used elsewhere.
The latest allotments include $3.5 million to the Finance department, bringing its yearly total to $11 million.
A spokeswoman said in an email response that “additional funding was allocated to the department of Finance to inform Canadians about economic action plan measures and benefits.”
Liberal finance critic Scott Brison groused that with the 2015 federal budget delayed until at least April amid plunging oil prices, the government’s priorities are skewed.
“With the Canadian economy flatlined, Canadians need action, not more ‘action plan’ ads,” Brison said in a telephone interview.
“They’re spending more time writing ads than they are writing a budget.”
National Defence, meanwhile, gets $3 million for those dramatic recruiting ads currently blanketing the sports networks, while Citizenship and Immigration has been given another $3 million on top of the $3 million it has already spent to promote services to new Canadians.
“We respect taxpayers in our advertising decisions and we expect to only spend approximately $500,000 out of the $3M,” Citizenship spokeswoman Nancy Caron said in an email.
The Heritage department, which had already spent $7.2 million on ads touting the country’s 150th birthday in 2017, receives another $1.5 million to prepare a fresh Canada 150 ad campaign that will air this summer.
NDP critic Charlie Angus said the millions spent on advertising by a government that is otherwise fixated on austerity measures reveals a troubling set of priorities in this election year.
“Today we got news that people with terminal illness can’t even get an expedited decision to access their pensions,” Angus said in an email.
“And the Conservatives waste public funds on this outrageous and blatant promotion of their re-election planks.”
The government has come under frequent fire for its ad budgets and the carefully choreographed messaging between its partisan interests and public programs.
“The difference to me is between communicating information and communicating values,” Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s who specializes in political advertising, said in an interview.
“And that’s sometimes a hard one to figure out. Inevitably, the government’s policies are values.”
As an example, Marland said military recruitment ads under the former Liberal government stressed career opportunities. The Conservatives have changed the tone, he said, “because they have a different approach.”
“That’s where we start getting into grey areas. I mean, how should the Conservatives advertise? …It’s fair game that we need to recruit people. We’re involved in armed conflict.”
Marland said the Canada 150 ads are more problematic.
“In my opinion, it is that sort of fuzzy, feel-good advertising that is more suspect as an election draws near,” he said.
Marland noted that Ontario has a provincial government advertising review board to check ads for partisanship.
“They end up in the same quagmire,” he said. “In the end a lot of these advertisements go ahead because you’re always into grey areas. It’s very hard to determine what is blatantly partisan and what isn’t.”