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Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes an announcement in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. The genesis of the Conservative government’s “Strong Proud Free” slogan that is bombarding television viewers is considered a cabinet confidence and will be sealed from public scrutiny for 20 years.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Strong. Proud. Free. And a state secret.

The genesis of the Conservative government's "Strong Proud Free" slogan that is bombarding television viewers is considered a cabinet confidence and will be sealed from public scrutiny for 20 years.

A request under the Access to Information Act seeking any background rationale for the tagline, which is being used to punctuate all the latest taxpayer-funded advertising, has come up empty.

That's because a 149-page Treasury Board submission on advertising has been deemed advice to cabinet, placing it behind a lead sheet of secrecy that even the federal information commissioner can't penetrate. No title for the submission, nor a date, author or even the department that originally prepared it can be revealed.

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister's Office, would only say that the slogan is "drawn from the thematics" of the government's 2013 Throne Speech.

Opposition critics point out the language is also drawn from the 2011 Conservative party platform and mirrors the themes promoted as Conservative values on the party website and in fundraising pitches.

The theme of this election year's Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa? Strong. Proud. Free.

"Using cabinet confidentiality on something that should be so benign is ridiculous," said Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP treasury board critic.

"They've been caught using a partisan tagline and they're hiding behind cabinet confidentiality to avoid the political fallout."

No minister or department will claim responsibility for the whole-of-government marketing campaign, and requests for comment from the Prime Minister's Office were returned by the Privy Council, which co-ordinates the development of government advertising.

"Section 23 of the communications policy of the government of Canada states that institutions must not use public funds to purchase advertising in support of a political party," Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet said in an e-mail.

"All government of Canada advertising is designed to comply with the guidance set out in the policy."

Compliance is in the eye of the beholder, says Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's, who is researching how the brand message of governing parties gets entwined with government ads.

" 'Strong, proud, free' obviously is something you could derive from the national anthem. There's nothing necessarily partisan about that," said Prof. Marland.

The Conservatives, however, repeatedly use these words in campaigning. "So it gets into this blurry world."

The Conservatives have come under repeated criticism for spending tens of millions of dollars annually on government advertising that is often indistinguishable from the partisan branding of the party. The marketing exercise extends to departmental Web design (now a uniform Tory blue, with cross-pollinating links to popular Conservative initiatives such as family tax cuts) and even departmental press releases, often heralding local "Harper government" expenditures.

"There have been some ambiguous government ads where a plausible defence could be made that they are not partisan or that they provide some modicum of information, but the 'Strong Proud Free' tagline makes no such pretence," said Jonathan Rose, a specialist in political communication at Queen's University in Kingston.

"It's almost verbatim from the Conservative party website."

Marland said the sponsorship scandal of the 1990s laid bare the need for more transparency on government communications, especially advertising, and helped spur annual government reports detailing ad campaigns and their cost.

But blind spots persist.

He cites the example of a 35-page "economic action plan" visual style guide and an accompanying 15-page project signage style guide. Those documents were ultimately released under the Access to Information Act because they had been shared widely with departments.

The strategy behind choosing "Strong Proud Free" as a motif is indeed a cabinet confidence, Marland argues, but not the execution of the plan.

"The order and the execution and the direction to do it is something that ends up being sent to the departments – and they're not given the reason for it," he said, so the public remains in the dark.

Liberal MP David McGuinty has a private member's bill in the Commons pipeline that would give the Auditor-General's office the power to scrub overt partisanship from government ads, a model that already exists in Ontario.

"If we ever needed confirmation that this government is seized with sloganeering, you just got it," said McGuinty.

"Now we have this insane situation where not only is the sloganeering overt and public, but we're being told it's overt, public – and secret."

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