The Conservative government heavily boosted spending on taxpayer-funded ads to promote the multibillion-dollar stimulus projects that were designed to fight the global recession, new data shows.
According to a Public Works accounting of Ottawa's annual ad budget, the government spent $53.8-million in 2009-2010 promoting the Economic Action Plan – the branding used to describe its stimulus spending program. That spending alone is more than the annual ad budget for the entire federal government before the Conservatives' 2006 election win.
In fact, government-wide spending on advertising more than tripled since the Conservatives first won power, growing to $136.3-million in 2009-10 from $41.3-million in 2005-06, the data shows.
The report was posted on the Public Works website on Dec. 21, 2011. Based on previous reporting patterns, the accounting report would have been expected around May – the month Canadians went to the polls.
The department defends the delay in releasing the annual report on the grounds that it takes months to reconcile invoices and obtain final sign-off from departments.
Michelle Bakos, a spokesperson for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, said the government has a responsibility to communicate important programs to Canadians and says special circumstances explain the increase.
"When excluding extraordinary initiatives such as the Economic Action Plan and H1N1 preparedness, advertising expenses [for 2009-10]were well below the last full recorded year under the former Liberal government," she said in an e-mail.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus argues the rise in ad spending shows Conservatives used tax dollars to promote themselves in advance of a possible federal election.
"They seem to think the taxpayers' dollars are money for their partisan war chest," Mr. Angus said in an interview. "They used this massive promotional budget to promote their government – how they were spending – and they were targeting it through ethnic media and other sources. It was a clear strategy here in place, and they used as much money as they could to pull it off."
Public Works spending on advertising contracts was at the heart of the sponsorship scandal that plagued the later years of the Liberal government. It dropped considerably afterwards: Records show that spending on government ads fell for three years straight, from $111-million in 2002-03 to $41.3-million in 2005-06.
Although the Conservatives were highly critical of the Liberal approach to government advertising, they more than doubled the ad budget in their first year in office, spending $86.9-million in 2006-07.
The Public Works report breaks down ad spending by department, showing the Public Health Agency of Canada spent the most in 2009-10 at $23.6-million, all of which was tied to that year's H1N1 flu awareness campaign. The Human Resources Department was second at $18.7-million, followed by $16.5-million at Finance Canada, $15.1-million at the Department of National Defence and $14-million by the Canada Revenue Agency.
The Conservative Party has made clear efforts to build its support among Canada's ethnic communities. The approach paid off in the 2011 election, when the party won several new ridings with large ethnic populations.
The Public Works data shows the government increased its spending on ads targeted toward ethnic communities. Such spending was about $3-million a year for both 2007-08 and 2008-09, then spiked in 2009-10 at $6.7-million.