OTTAWA - Talk about an expensive birthday party invitation.
Recently released federal spending figures show advertising promoting Canada's 150th birthday — two years from now — has cost nearly $12 million, so far.
That's $5 million more than the government had said last fall it was spending on Canada 150 advertising, because they're now including other programs as part of the party.
An estimated $6.5 million is being spent producing and running ads about the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences currently running on social media and mainstream media channels clearly tagged as being connected to the anniversary.
But the Conservatives are also bundling their campaign marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812 under the Canada 150 banner, adding the $5.2 million already spent on that to the cost of advertising upcoming national birthday celebrations.
The War of 1812 ad campaign was the first of a series along the road to 2017, said Marisa Monnin, a spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Shelley Glover.
"Through these advertising campaigns, the government of Canada will encourage Canadians to learn more about their history, commemorate events, celebrate accomplishments and honour people that helped shape what Canada is today," she said in an email.
The cost of the ads was published in an answer to an order paper question posed by the Liberals in which they asked for spending on Canada 150 advertising by department between 2010 and 2020.
Only the Canadian Heritage Department had figures to share so far, and they detail spending up until the 2014-2015 fiscal year; the documents say spending after that is not yet available.
Liberal heritage critic Stephane Dion said the ad buy seems like a case of the government seeking to burnish its image.
While they're running ads, they've yet to unveil any actual events to mark the milestone, he said.
"It's a manipulative government and they blur the line between governmental information and partisan ads," he said.
"Some of the Fathers of Confederation ads are well done, but since there is no plan behind that, you see that what they want to be is to be seen by Canadians are doing something."
Monnin says the plans are in the works, but didn't disclose details.
The Conservatives have long been attacked for using government ads in a partisan manner; one sore spot was the $2.5 million spent advertising an apprenticeship program before the program was even official.
The Treasury Board, which oversees government operations, maintains rules on government communications which specify they must be non-partisan.
It's the responsibility of bureaucrats, not politicians, to ensure government ads comply, said Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
"It's up to each government department to adhere to the guidelines," he said in a recent interview.
"I can't be a traffic cop."
While in Ontario, the provincial auditor general reviews government ads before publication to ensure their political neutrality, no such rules are in place at the federal level, though the Liberals have introduced a private member's bill on the subject.
The extent to which the government has used federal funds to promote itself is a violation of the democratic process, said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
"There are rules, but the problem is that this government believes that rules are for other people," he said.
"They believe that taxpayers' money should be used for whatever they feel it should be used for in terms of promoting very partisan party interests of the Conservative party."
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