OTTAWA - When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced this week that March 29 will be federal budget day, the very first words out of his mouth heralded the coming "Jobs and Growth Budget."
If the phrase sounds vaguely familiar, it should.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for a $12.4-million government ad campaign with one common message: "creating jobs and growth."
Complementary campaigns by Finance Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency ran throughout February and will continue through March, backstopping the Harper government's political message.
"Canada's economic action plan is helping create jobs and growth," says the opening voice-over of two Finance Canada ads, staged in a fake coffee shop that looks remarkably like a Tim Hortons. The catch-phrase gets repeated twice more in the 30-second spots.
"Tax savings are working for Canadians, helping create jobs and growth," says the central line in each of three tax agency ads from the CRA.
The government's economic action plan website has a banner tag line: "Focused on Jobs and Growth." The banner is just above links to the Finance Canada TV ads. Below that on the web page there's a "jobs and growth blog."
In fact, the phrase has been peppered through government announcements and MP op-eds for months, used to promote everything from cutting red tape to an announcement on a new self-government agreement with the Whitecap-Dakota First Nation in Ontario.
The irony is that the government-wide message — and its taxpayer-funded promotion — comes in advance of a federal budget that Conservative ministers have said could slash spending by as much as $8 billion.
"It does strike me as passing strange to be talking about restraint on the one side and talking about jobs and growth on the other side," Doug Porter, deputy chief economist for BMO Capital Markets, said in an interview on Thursday.
"It's not that I don't think the economy could grow during a period of restraint, it's just that the thrust of fiscal policy will act as a bit of a drag on growth, not a support, for the next couple of years."
Porter noted the fiscal restraint argument for growth is predicated on bringing down interest rates. But rates are at historic lows, "so they're not going to get any more reward from the bond markets for bringing out heavy duty restraint."
Adding insult to injury, Service Canada's national job bank website has been out of commission for at least two weeks due to technical difficulties while the "jobs and growth" ads blanket the airwaves.
The Harper government has been called out repeatedly for using departmental ad budgets for partisan Conservative advertising and an expert in political communications says the latest campaign fits that pattern.
"This is nothing more than having taxpayers pay for advertising a policy that should rightly be paid for by the Conservative party," said Jonathan Rose, a political scientist at Queen's University.
The bulk of the spending comes from the Canada Revenue Agency, which has budgeted $7.5 million for a tax-season campaign that began Jan. 23.
The tax-collecting arm of government said in an email the campaign is designed "to encourage Canadians to file online and on time and to fulfil our obligation to ensure that Canadians are aware of and taking full advantage of all the tax-relief measures to which they may be entitled."
The CRA official listed six tax credits and deductions that are highlighted by the campaign — all but two of which are "boutique" Conservative tax credits, such as for kids' recreation, that economists have criticized for cluttering the tax code and rewarding tax filers for doing stuff they'd do anyway.
A Finance spokesman said the department has budgeted $3.8 million for the ad buy and $1.1 million for production. The campaign "helps build awareness among Canadians" for "jobs and growth measures and programs under the economic action plan (that) have been designed for that specific purpose."
The Finance ads actually include measures that date back to 2006 and 2007, in addition to measures from budget 2009.
Last year at this time, the CRA and Finance Canada both ran expensive campaigns promoting the 2009 "economic action plan" measures. However in the run-up to last May's federal election, taxpayers also paid for an additional $14.5-million ad blitz on the same theme by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
Asked to explain why Human Resources failed to renew the campaign this year, the department did not respond directly, instead choosing to tout the successful uptake of the programs promoted in 2011.
The opening line of HRSDC's emailed response? "Our government's priority is jobs and economic growth."