Ottawa's advertising budget ballooned to a record $130-million last year, according to previously unreleased figures that show a 64-per-cent increase in the government's marketing bill in a time of unprecedented deficits.
The advertising budget for 2009-2010 is a large increase of $50.5-million over the previous year's budget of $79.5-million. In addition, the latest tally is more than three times higher than the advertising budget of $41.3-million in 2005-2006, when the Harper government took office.
By far, the most expensive element in last year's advertising blitz was the $49.5-million that was spent on the promotion of the Economic Action Plan, which consisted of measures that were announced in recent recession-fighting budgets. The government racked up a $54-billion deficit last year, and is arguing that it needed to promote various measures that were put in place to create jobs and promote growth in Canada.
"Advertising costs for the Economic Action Plan were one-time only costs in the context of the global economic crisis, during which the [government of Canada]deemed it important to communicate with Canadians about the programs and services available to them to counter tough economic times," the Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada said in a statement.
Up until now, the Conservatives had spent much less on advertising than their Liberal predecessors. In 2002-2003, for example, the Liberals allocated $111-million to advertising, which is much higher than the average of $83.5-million a year that the Conservatives spent on advertising between 2006 and 2008.
The overall spending on advertising dropped dramatically between 2003 and 2005, as the governments of former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin faced a political crisis over the sponsorship scandal and cut budgets below $50-million.
Given it accumulated a record deficit in 2009-2010, the government can expect to face opposition attacks over its decision to increase spending on advertising to $130-million. Even before the new numbers were released, the government was frequently accused of using taxpayers' dollars for political purposes by widely promoting its budgetary measures to fight the global slowdown.
On Monday, for example, the government came under fire in the House of Commons for insisting that banners be placed at all sites that received funding from the Economic Action Plan across Canada.
"When will the government create a mechanism to ensure that advertising serves the interests of Canadians instead of those of the Conservative Party," Liberal MP John McCallum asked in the House.
Transport Minister Chuck Strahl said the government was being transparent and insisting that Canadians be made aware of the money being spent on the stimulus package.
The size of the 2009-2010 advertising budget will come as a surprise to many, given that the Treasury Board Secretariat has compiled a list on its website of the advertising budgets of various departments for the year, totalling $85.3-million.
According to Treasury Board, the government has approved $65.4-million in advertising spending in the ongoing fiscal year of 2010-2011.
In addition to spending on the Economic Action Plan, federal officials said last year's spike in advertising was mainly related to the mass vaccination campaign against the H1N1 virus, which came in at $24.1-million.
"In the context of a global H1N1 pandemic, a significant amount of advertising costs can be attributed to the efforts of the [government of Canada] in partnership with the provinces and territories, to encourage Canadians to protect themselves against the virus," the Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada said.