OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is justifying the more than $100 million his government has spent on economic advertising by pointing to Canadians' confidence in the economy.
Taxpayer-funded government ads are supposed to inform citizens about programs and services, according to Treasury Board guidelines.
But when the Conservatives recently put out a tender for a major new ad agency contract that could see the feel-good "economic action plan" brand continued until 2016, they highlighted consumer confidence and the direction of the country as key objectives.
The government acknowledged Tuesday that "action plan" TV ads currently blanketing broadcasts of the NHL playoffs don't contain any actual measures from this spring's federal budget — although the ads are tagged with the budget's #eap2013 handle.
"It is becoming obvious that rather than helping Canadians, the government would rather continue to spin Canadians," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said in the Commons.
Trudeau asked the prime minister how such heavy ad spending in a time of government cutbacks helps middle-class Canadians.
Harper responded that "Canadians understand and are very proud of the fact that Canada's economy has performed so much better than other developed countries during these challenging times."
In fact, Canada is no longer the leader of the G7 in growth, having been surpassed by the United States in 2012. Other smaller advanced economies have also outperformed Canada since the 2009 recession, including Australia and the Scandinavian countries.
Critics, including non-partisan communications specialists, have long assailed the "economic action plan" ads for promoting wished-for results — jobs, growth and prosperity — rather than actual programs Canadians can access. TV viewers are directed to a website, where they find more promotional material.
"Government is not a product to be sold," said Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP Treasury Board critic.
"Ads shouldn't be selling a product, they should be informing Canadians. I don't think there's any excuse for their vacuousness and their lack of information."
New "action plan" radio ads end with a disclaimer that the measures being promised are "subject to parliamentary approval."
That follows from a 1989 Speakers ruling after the Conservative government of the day advertised the coming Goods and Services Tax as a done deal before MPs had voted on it.
At the time, Speaker John Fraser dismissed opposition claims of a breach of parliamentary privilege, suggesting instead that the ads were closer to contempt of Parliament — which he also dismissed.
"However, I want the House to understand very clearly that if your Speaker ever has to consider a situation like this again, the chair will not be as generous," Fraser concluded.
"This is a case which, in my opinion, should never recur. I expect the Department of Finance and other departments to study this ruling carefully and remind everyone within the Public Service that we are a parliamentary democracy, not a so-called executive democracy nor a so-called administrative democracy."
Despite the current radio disclaimer, the Harper government has not included any caution about MPs still having to approve the "economic action plan 2013" claims being made in its TV ads.
A spokesman for the Privy Council Office, which serves the prime minister, said that's because there's nothing new in the TV ads.
"The recent radio ads launched by the Department of Finance contained new measures for consideration by Parliament as part of the March 21, 2013 budget," spokesman Raymond Rivet said in an email.
"This is why a disclaimer was included. The recent EAP television advertisements did not contain new measures and aired before Budget 2013."
Those TV ads are still airing more than six weeks after the budget was read in Parliament.
Liberal MP Scott Brison said his research shows each single ad spot on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada is costing taxpayers about $95,000.
That's enough to pay the federal contribution toward 32 summer student jobs for the season, said Brison.
According the government's annual advertising reports and recent cabinet approvals, the Conservatives have spent at least $113 million on EAP-specific ads since 2009.
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Stephen Harper and wife Laureen in 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8472663517/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets behind the bar at the Victoria pub in Montreal Friday, March 16, 2012 where he stopped in to meet some supporters and have a drink for St. Patricks Day.
You Eat Half, And I'll Eat Half
Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper stand next to a tray of hot cross buns at a bakery in Mississauga, on April 23, 2011.
Stephen Harper with wife Laureen and their chinchilla Charlie. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8425819048/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves after going for an ATV ride as he visits a farm for a campaign event in Wainfleet Ont., on Monday, April 4, 2011.
Nom Nom Nom
Prime Minister Stephen Harper eats maple taffy as he visits a sugar shack in Norbertville, Quebec on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives his wife Laureen a kiss following a day of G-20 meetings in Toronto. June 27, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=938&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Can I Keep Them?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays with foster kittens at 24 Sussex. May 1, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper throws a small snowball at photographers after talking with reporters at a campaign stop in Guelph, Ontario Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006.
Thank God You're Not Wearing Overalls
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives Taylor Swift the book "Maple Leaf Forever" before her concert at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. May 20, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Stephen Harper <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/10/23/harper-wedding-photos-ottawa_n_2006374.html" target="_blank">surprises an Ottawa couple on their wedding day</a> in 2012.
Yep, Definitely A Cat Person
Laureen Harper laughs as she holds a husky dog with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as they tour Caribou Crossing, Yukon, south of Whitehorse Monday August 20, 2012.
Stephen Harper, his children Ben and Rachel, and wife Laureen cross Abbey Road in 2009. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OfGXN" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hams it up with Bonhomme Carnaval in the Prime Minister's Centre Block Office. November 25, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1238&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, far left, watches a third round match between Agnieszka Radwanska, of Poland, and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic with his children Rachel, center, and Benjamin, right, at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, in New York.
Psst! I Like Your Hat
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2011.
Whoops, How Did This Get In Here...
Part of a painting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper fully nude, by Kingston artist Maggie Sutherland, is shown at the Central Kingston public library in Kingston, Ont. on May 18, 2012.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his son Ben watch a bloopers show while attending the Calgary Flames NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Calgary, Saturday, April 11, 2009.
In The Key Of C Major
Prime Minister Stephen Harper practices a few chords after arriving at home from work. February 19, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1457&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Love You, Mom
Conservative leader Stephen Harper gets a hug from his mother Margaret during a visit to his campaign office in Calgary, Saturday May 29, 2004.
We Can't All Grow A Pirate 'Stache Like Trudeau
Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds up a moustache scarf to kick off the start of ‘Movember’, November 1, 2012 Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8146161138/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
The Sweet Side Of Politics
Senior Legislative Assistant, Katherine Locke, left, and Government House Leader Special Assistant, Zoe Lawson, show off their House of Commons gingerbread house to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his office on Dec. 16, 2010. The gingerbread house was filled with rows of gummi bears as members of Parliament. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1355&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to tourists as he walks on the beach after the closing of the VI Summit of the Americas on April 15, 2012 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays a game of table tennis with Team Canada's Mo Zhang at Canada House in London on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.
Whaddya Mean It Doesn't Fit?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tries on an old hockey helmet at he tours the Yukon's Hockey History exhibit at the McBride Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon on Thursday, August 25, 2011.
Stephen Harper, his son Ben, and Wayne Gretzky watch the men's ice hockey team's gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8457917081/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Who Said Politics Can't Be Fun?
Stephen Harper and his son Ben hit balloons into the crowd after his speech at the party's three-day policy convention in Montreal on Friday March 18, 2005.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Jamie Robinson (guitar) play along with Blue Rodeo's front man Jim Cuddy, and recording artist Jimmy Rankin as they belt out a tune during a Juno Awards reception at 24, Sussex March 31, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=2099&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, looks up from dishing out pancakes at Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, July 10, 2011.
I Spy Something Cute
Stephen Harper welcomes two Chinese pandas at Toronto's Pearson Airport on March 25, 2013. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8588948719/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
A young Stephen Harper.
Just Smile And Back Away Slowly
Clowns ham it up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick. July 19, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1037&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, throws Senator Gerry St. Germain's cowboy hat into the crowd after presenting him with a new one as his wife Margaret St. Germain, right, laughs during a barbecue at St. Germain's ranch in Surrey, B.C., on Monday August 6, 2012.
Thumbs Up, Up And Away
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up from the cockpit of his campaign plane as he arrives in Ottawa,Tuesday May 3, 2011.
He's A Belieber
Stephen Harper presents Justin Bieber with a Diamond Jubilee Medal on Nov. 23, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8212520594/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I'm With Him
Stephen Harper and Wayne Gretzky, joined by students on an outdoor ice rink in Saskatoon on Feb. 5, 2010. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/ZTlKy6" target="_blank"> Facebook</a>
Shhh... This Is The Best Part
Stephen Harper, wife Laureen and Suraksha, Grade 10, visit an IMAX theatre in Bangalore, India on Nov. 8, 2012.
Umm... This Is My Costume
Prime Minister Stephen Harper poses for a photograph with Halloween trick-or-treaters at his official residence in Ottawa, Wednesday, October 31, 2012.
Is It Cold, Or Is It Just Me?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper bundles up in a parka as he tours Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, February 23, 2012.
One Of Harper's Many Hats
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his hat prior to the arrival of Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, for the official start of the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Alberta, July 8, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen play with some furry friends at the official opening of the new Ottawa Humane Society facility on July 6, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1724&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Omigod, So Cute
Met Batisse X, official mascot of the Royal 22nd Regiment, prior to welcoming French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault to Ottawa. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8554783327/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I Can Totally Take You
Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives a cricket lesson from Ankur Biswas, cricket team captain, at the Bishop Cotton Boys School. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OffwT" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper drives a dog sled after meeting mushing teams at the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife, N.W.T., Monday, March 10, 2008.
A Very Harper Holiday
Hanging With The Golden Girls
Stephen Harper meets Canada's women's hockey team, gold medal winners at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/17v6qKa" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen, left, make cookies with 10-year-old brain cancer survivor Baxton Wacholtz, right, and his mom Michelle, of Telkwa, B.C., during a photo opportunity at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 7, 2012.
Does This Mean I'm In The Band?
Canadian musician Jens Lindemann visits Stephen Harper before a concert. "His blue trumpet reminded me of Sgt. Pepper," according to Harper. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8519328992/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Stanley's Not Going To Be Happy About This
Met with Constable Dan Allen of the Child at Risk Response Team (and Cagney the dog) while in Calgary. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8640427193/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Say, 'Happy Halloween!'
Prime Minister Stephen Harper points out the camera to baby Grayson, dressed up as a giraffe, during his first time trick-or-treating at 24 Sussex. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/10ppG5w" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Stephen Harper hugs his daughter Rachel Hugging Rachel as results come in after the 2011 election. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/15WI2TY" target="_blank">Facebook</a>