With scandal looming in the background, the Leader of the Opposition took to his feet in the House of Commons to grill the Prime Minister about questionable taxpayer-funded advertising.
“Will the Prime Minister stop the waste and abuse right now and order a freeze of all discretionary government advertising?” he demanded.
Given the Harper government’s recent advertising blitz selling their budgets, attacking wireless companies and promoting a non-existent job grant program it’s not surprising that Tom Mulcair and the NDP would oppose such wasteful spending.
Except this wasn’t opposition leader Tom Mulcair and the NDP; this was opposition leader Stephen Harper and the Canadian Alliance. In fact, it was Stephen Harper’s very first question as opposition leader, back in May of 2002.
Fast forward nearly 12 years and times have changed; giving proof to the old adage that where you stand often depends very much on where you sit.
Stephen Harper has grown comfortable sitting on the other side of the aisle, in the Prime Minister’s chair, where Jean Chrétien once tried to contain the sponsorship scandal, deflecting Harper’s outrage and Harper’s demands that he put a stop to pork-barreling government advertising practices.
Since taking power in 2006, Harper’s attitude toward advertising has changed drastically. Hardly a hockey playoff season has gone by without a multi-million dollar barrage of taxpayer-financed television federal government propaganda polluting the airwaves between face-offs.
It hasn’t been cheap: Harper has pumped out $670 million in advertising buys since taking office, including $113 million to promote five different iterations of the Economic Action Plan – Harper-speak for what we once called the federal budget.
As the years have worn on, the government’s advertising has become more transparently partisan. This past spring, the Canadian Advertising Standards Council formally cited the Harper government for misleading advertising: a TV commercial touting the Canada Job Grant – new money for young Canadians hoping to find work, access training and develop job skills.
If you left the TV room to alert your teenager to the existence of the Canada Job Grant, you were in for a disappointment. You can’t go online and apply for the Canada Job Grant. The grant didn’t exist then. It sadly doesn’t exist now. The government quietly settled with the advertising council and pulled the ad.
Federal officials are still, rightfully, attempting to persuade the provinces and employer groups to sign on with the good idea. In time, they could eventually shepherd the Canada Job Grant into existence. But any business that tried to advertise such a non-existent product would face fines and lawsuits.
The government’s own polls show fewer and fewer Canadians paying attention to these kind of ads: the latest ones exhorted Canadians to phone a toll-free number for more information. Nobody called the number.
Now, Ontario NDP MP Glenn Thibeault has uncovered the $9 million tab for the latest round of spending, this time a new campaign slamming wireless phone companies.
There’s something a little bit sick about companies and the people who work for them, sending their taxes into the Canada Revenue Agency so that a bunch of political hacks in Ottawa can spend millions buying TV advertising to tell Canadians how terrible they are.
This kind of thing wouldn’t be right if the government were using taxpayer dollars to attack an interest group or a religious organization, and it’s not o.k. that they’re using tax money to go after Canadian businesses.
In the province of Ontario, they’re wasting far less money on government advertising, because it needs to be approved by a special panel that reports to the independent Auditor General, before it goes on the air. There is a tough set of rules covering what can and can’t be advertised with taxpayer dollars. Ontario Liberal MP David McGuinty tabled a private member’s bill in November, proposing a similar arrangement for Ottawa. It’s a good idea.
To restore the trust of Canadians, the Prime Minister needs to put such a safeguard in place He also needs send a strong message to the backroom operators in the PMO that he’s returning to his core values, and ditching high-priced, taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns.
Stephen Harper would do well to pull up a video recording of that first question period exchange and listen to the young man confronting the Prime Minister. He was right then, and those who think this advertising is a waste, are right now.