Skip to main content

The website for the Conservative government's economic stimulus program has been criticized as overly partisan.

A flashy taxpayer-funded website was conceived as the "key component" in marketing the Conservative government's Economic Action Plan, a secret memo prepared for Stephen Harper reveals.

And right from the get-go, images and video of the prime minister were integral building blocks that pre-occupied programmers building the site, according to internal government documents obtained by The Canadian Press.

Two years later, Canadians are still being blanketed with Economic Action Plan marketing, an all-of-government program designed to enforce "a single, consistent brand ... across all departments and agencies."

On Thursday, some 80 government MPs, ministers and senators were dispatched across the country to tout EAP projects, even as the program officially winds down. Television viewers have been bombarded since January with a fresh round of pricey, action-plan advertising - ads that uniformly direct viewers to the website.

Documents reveal it is part of a massive, centrally co-ordinated campaign - critics call it partisan propaganda - orchestrated out of the Prime Minister's Office at taxpayer expense.

A "memorandum for the prime minister" from April 2, 2009 - obtained by The Canadian Press after waiting 18 months on an Access to Information Act request that was supposed to take 30 days - lays out the website marketing plan.

"Recently, a joint PMO/PCO Working Group has been struck to oversee the marketing of the EAP, of which the website is a key component," says the memo from Kevin Lynch.

Mr. Lynch is the former clerk of the Privy Council Office, or PCO, which supports the Prime Minister's Office, or PMO.

"Final content approval rests with PMO," the Lynch memo says.

The memo was stamped "Returned from the PM" on April 15, 2009.

The two-page note, marked SECRET, states that the website was originally launched by the Finance Department for the January 2009 federal budget.

But the site "evolved rapidly" and was "substantially modified and relaunched by the PMO/PCO" on March 11, 2009.

As far back as Feb. 27, 2009, the Privy Council Office was working up JavaScript for "the new website" including a "progress tracker" that was to include "What has been done since 2007." Apparently the website was not constrained to the stimulus measures contained in the recession-fighting 2009 federal budget, but would be used to selectively promote the Conservative government's entire record of economic activity.

A link to the Prime Minister's website was proposed on March 5.

A week later a "real action timeline" was in the works: "As discussed, do the PM ones first as those are the ones w/ creatives already in place."

Choice of photo art for the site "will end up being a PMO call," an email notes on March 17.

Ten days later, the Prime Minister's Office approved the removal of a website banner, although the email adds: "Obviously we will keep the PM image / video at right and the link to the budget showing the guys in the hard hats."

The government website's partisan and personal promotion of Mr. Harper became an issue in the autumn of 2009, when The Canadian Press reported that the site was plastered with literally dozens of Harper photos.

After critics lampooned the site's self-aggrandizing appearance, many of the Harper photos disappeared.

The PMO claimed no photos had been removed, and even issued talking points to MPs and supporters citing The Canadian Press story as "false." Prominent party supporters claimed the site was simply undergoing routine technical revisions.

If it was routine site maintenance, the government does not want Canadians to know. An access request asking what happened to the missing photos elicited a two-page, internal explanation from PCO technicians - a response that was entirely blacked out before it was released.

The website has remained at the core of Economic Action Plan marketing effort.

Since the spring of 2009, the Harper government has been tracking every single sign posted at a job site related to the federal stimulus package. Those 8,500-plus signs all include the web address.

Television ad campaigns, including the current blitz, also direct viewers to the website, as do newspaper and radio ads.

An internal government "style guide" on the Economic Action Plan, dated July 2009, repeatedly stresses "maintaining the integrity of the brand for all communications products and activities, including announcements, releases, advertising, marketing materials, websites, backdrops and signage."

The guide emphasizes that all projects "must ensure rigorous consistency in the look and feel of signage."

The style guide was printed at the same time the Privy Council Office was seeking sweeping exemptions from the government of Canada's official "Common Look and Feel standards." Those standards are designed to keep government communications non-partisan and uniform.

Treasury Board President Vic Toews ended up granting the exemption against the advice of his officials, documents show.

According to the Lynch memo of April 2009, the EAP website is under "daily review by PMO, PCO, and Finance."

A protocol for updating the site was being developed said the memo, before reiterating that "Final content approval will remain with PMO."

Nonetheless, the memo notes that "Governance of the site is being clarified: Finance will maintain the site and receive $2 million from the Central Advertising Fund for its maintenance and promotion."

Interact with The Globe