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.