Government Ad Spending Touting Environmental Record Called 'Orwellian'

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NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian is slammed the government and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver for spending on ads touting the government's environmental record. (CP)
NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian is slammed the government and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver for spending on ads touting the government's environmental record. (CP)

Natural Resources Canada is spending $185,000 to hold focus groups to vet millions of dollars worth of advertisements promoting responsible resource development, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The government's supplementary budget estimates document shows the resource development campaign will cost $4 million.

That's on top of the $5 million already budgeted for Natural Resources advertising that has promoted pipelines, safety measures such as double-hulled oil tankers and changes to environmental laws as part of the government's 2012 budget.

This year's total of $9 million for advertising is the most this department has ever spent on advertising during the current Conservative tenure.

A ministry document, obtained by CBC News under Access to Information, acknowledged that Ottawa's new energy policies were attracting a lot of public and media attention.

"It will be important in this environment to increase public awareness and understanding of the Government's balanced approach to energy policy," stated the document signed by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

The Conservatives focus on resource development and energy policy comes with overhauls of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act.

"We are presenting facts about environmental protection and about responsible resource development and about our new legislation to Canadians. We think it's very important that they have those facts and that's why we're doing it," explained Oliver in response to a question from CBC News.

Compared to other departments, the Natural Resources ad buy is small. The Finance Department regularly spends eight to 10 times as much promoting its budgets. But NRCan is not generally a big spender in the ad world. The most the department ever spent was $21 million in 2002-2003 raising awareness about climate change.

At least two of the commercials are playing on TV already. They will play on radio and online as well. One lists a host of benefits resource development brings to Canadians. The other lists ways the government is making sure the environment is protected when resources are developed.

Communications strategy may be flawed

Communications expert Allan Bonner says the spots are on "the right track" because they show the benefits. But he does see some problems with their potential effectiveness.

First is the laundry list approach.

"There is research that shows a microcosmic story will be more memorable. Perhaps this could be a story of one town, one person, a community centre heated with oilsands oil or the oil that's exported that comes back as a finished product from another country," says Bonner.

Second is the size of the campaign.

"One has to spend a lot of money and repeat for a long time to make a dent in public opinion," he adds.

Finally, he explains there is often a gap between the way scientists and industry view a topic and the way the general public does. NRCan has to work hard to bridge that gap or risk a failing campaign.

Opposition calls campaign 'Orwellian'

Regardless of whether the campaign is effective or not from a marketing standpoint, the opposition thinks the whole campaign is deeply cynical.

"I think the problem here is that ... they have cut environmental protections. They've cut the environmental assessment process and at the same time they are injecting millions of dollars in order to convince Canadians that this is a good thing," argues NDP Natural Resources Critic Peter Julian.

"It's almost Orwellian. What they're doing is taking bad practices and telling Canadians that somehow that's good."

But the industry doesn't feel that way at all.

"We need all the help we can get. Evidence would suggest that the oil and gas industry is not well understood. I would even argue that in some sectors and circles we are not all that well liked," says Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokesperson Janet Annesley.

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