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Selling policy or party? Tories to spend $4-million on budget ad blitz

Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a news conference at paper plant in Windsor, Que., on Jan. 6, 2011


The Conservative government is planning to spend up to $4-million on a taxpayer-funded ad blitz to promote its 2011 budget, a media buy that will start just days before an increasingly probable spring election campaign.

The planned ad campaign will promote the budget as the "next phase" of Canada's Economic Action Plan, the name the government gave to its two-year stimulus program.

Signs, branding and big novelty cheques related to the Economic Action Plan prompted accusations that Conservatives were using tax dollars to promote themselves for political gain rather than to inform Canadians about government policy.

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But the stimulus spending spree is over and lean times are being promised. No major spending is expected in this month's budget about which the public needs to be educated.

The $4-million budget promotion comes as the Conservatives are already on the defensive about advertising in recent weeks, including charges against four party officials who are alleged to have broken campaign-spending rules in the 2006 campaign to buy national ads and the recent firing of a political staffer in Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office who was using government resources to raise money for Conservative Party ads in ethnic media.

The Harper government intends to keep the "Canada's Economic Action Plan" slogan alive as a way of describing its four-year plan to balance the books.

‬The planned ads - from the Department of Finance - are in addition to other government ads from several departments that currently flood the airwaves. They are also on top of an extensive ad campaign funded by the Conservative Party that promotes Stephen Harper as Prime Minister and derides the three opposition party leaders.

The $4-million for promoting the 2011 budget was set aside almost a year ago. Officials have already spent some of that money planning the "comprehensive" national campaign, but they will be hard pressed to spend all of it. That's because the cash expires if it isn't spent by March 31, which is the end of the fiscal year and just 10 days after the release of the March 22 budget.

Chisholm Pothier, a spokesman for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, said the $4-million was set aside "long before we knew the date of this year's budget or the political climate in which it was being introduced."

Any unspent money will be returned to the government's fiscal framework, he said.

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"The money allocated is $4-million but given the time frame this year, it is very unlikely the entire amount will be spent. We won't know the precise numbers until all invoices are in," he said in an e-mail.

Altogether, government records show Ottawa is spending at least $65.4-million on government ads in the fiscal year ending March 31.

In addition to the Budget 2011 ads, that amount includes a further $5-million ad campaign by the Department of Finance running now that promotes its "Economic Action Plan," $6.5-million by the Canada Revenue Agency promoting various tax credits introduced by the Conservatives and $14.5-million on campaigns by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to promote "benefits for Canadian families," "Helping Canadian Workers and Apprentices" and "Jobs of the Future."

Rules do not allow political parties to spend more than about $20-million in total during election campaigns, but there is no spending limit outside of an official election campaign. Rules do not allow federal government advertising during an election campaign, but there is no limit as to how much governments spend on ads outside of a campaign.

Spending on government-wide advertising ramped up as part of the two-year stimulus program. Last year Ottawa spent about $85-million on ads. Within that total, the Department of Finance spent $15-million advertising its Economic Action Plan.

The Department of Finance did not specifically advertise the 2009 budget, but spent $10-million that year to promote its "Advantage Canada" plan for the economy and another $5-million promoting the then new Tax Free Savings Account. The year before, the Department of Finance did not spend any money on advertising. Total government spending on ads for the 2007-08 fiscal year was $64.8-million. The Department of Finance spent $1.5-million on ads for the 2007 budget.

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Liberal MP Siobhan Coady called the spending "outrageous" and noted a committee is about to study the government's use of ads.

NDP MP Tom Mulcair said the spending is clearly political.

"They're going to brazenly take $4-million of taxpayers' money to try and brainwash the public about how good they are," he said. "Doing that in this highly-charged atmosphere, as we're heading into a quite-possible election this spring is, I think, beyond the pale."

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