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Conservatives’ use of government ads is unbelievably cynical

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

I admit I had not given much thought to how I should feel about the War of 1812. It's possible that I haven't been excited enough about the fact that Canada will be 150 years old before long. Now there's only a couple of years till it happens and I feel behind in my celebration planning.

If I'm not alone, Canada's in trouble. Or so our federal government thinks.

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I may not watch as much live TV as I used to, but I still watch enough to see how many of our tax dollars are being spent on advertising to us. It would be a shocking amount for the most reckless spending of governments. But for a government that boasts of frugality: it's off-the-dial cynical.

Let's recall that the Harper government was born of public anger, elected to clean up the misappropriation of public money for partisan purposes.

Instead, Conservative election planners are gorging on public money in the run-up to an election. This is your money being used to tip the electoral scales in favour of the incumbents. If you're the most partisan Conservative you might find this OK. If you're not, you know it's not right.

Who's making these decisions? Nobody really steps up and takes responsibility for it. But one thing is for sure: this is no rogue operation, a group of unmonitored miscreants who found hundreds of millions of dollars lying around and took their own initiative.

Nor is this a product of departments coming forward with compelling arguments about how the country will fall apart if we don't get more excited about our 150th anniversary. Or realize how marijuana is a bigger threat than we thought.

I'm not naïve about government advertising, or against it in every form. Earlier in my career, I worked on ad campaigns about the deficit, national unity and the GST, among others. Looking back, I'm not certain that some of the campaigns I worked on didn't cross the line I'm drawing in this column. But each of those campaigns was at least about trying to build momentum behind an important and difficult change for the country.

But an ad campaign to vilify cellphone companies? To tell us something vague about a war fought 200 years ago? To let me know, just in case I was wondering, that the government truly cares for veterans?

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I've no quarrel with governments advertising to make people aware of programs and services, to encourage socially useful behaviour, and to build knowledge around important national issues.

But these days the government seems addicted to spending our money to shape our mood. They want voters to feel good about the way things are. And worried about how they would be if another party was running things.

Last week, the government announced it was pushing back the date of the next budget. The Finance Minister said more certainty was needed before making decisions.

This disrupted the normal flow of things in Ottawa. Chances are good it has sent the advertising teams back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how best to wrap and burnish the newest episode of the Economic Action Plan.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong and the government won't advertise this year's budget. Otherwise, it will be another multimillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy for the Conservative campaign. If this happens and doesn't shock us, it's because senses have been dulled to this abuse.

There must be ministers at the cabinet table and MPs in the Conservative caucus who are embarrassed about this. It was what they campaigned against, not what they signed up for.

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