A government waste-watching group once headed by Defence Minister Jason Kenney is calling out the federal government for using taxpayer money to pay for partisan ads.
In a release issued Wednesday, Canadian Taxpayers Federation federal director Aaron Wudrick points to several recent ad campaigns that have been in heavy rotation, including the anti-pot messaging launched last year and commercials touting new tax cuts.
"These ads are all paid for with your tax dollars," he notes.
And while he acknowledges that, in some cases, such campaigns serve a "legitimate purpose" by providing the public with important information about available programs and services, that wasn't the case with the $2.5 million spent on ads for the Canada Job Grant — a program that, Wudrick points out in his release, "didn't even exist at the time."
"The reality is that for an incumbent government, the temptation to torque ads for partisan gain will always be great," Wudrick said.
"If a government can use public dollars to 'inform' Canadians by conveniently putting a positive spin on the governing party's policies at the same time, they probably will."
This, he says, "is not only a waste of precious resources — it's also an affront to fairness in a democracy."
"Further, it violates the democratic principle that public dollars shouldn't be directed towards partisan ends."
The federation wants Ottawa to establish an independent third party to vet proposed government advertising to ensure a non-partisan tone.
3rd party oversight needed: CTF
Wudrick points out that the Province of Ontario has had an independent ad review process since 2004.
"It's time for the Harper Conservatives to follow Ontario's lead and implement similar third-party oversight of its advertising," he concludes.
The critique comes just days after Liberal finance critic Scott Brison blasted the Conservatives for spending millions on what he described as "wasteful and ineffective partisan ads."
He claimed the government has spent more than $750 million on ads since taking office in 2006.
In 2013, Liberal MP David McGuinty introduced a private members' bill to appoint a federal advertising commissioner, who would work within the Office of the Auditor General to review all proposed government advertising for potentially partisan content.
According to the most recent spending projections, the government recently added an additional $11 million to the available advertising budget for this year, which now totals $65 million.
Ad budget boosted
As reported by The Canadian Press last month, the bulk of that newly committed money is earmarked for four departments:
- Finance, which got $3.5 million in additional cash to sell the government's much self-touted Economic Action Plan, including newly promised tax credits and benefits.
- Defence, which received $3 million to continue its latest recruitment campaign.
- Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which added $3 million to its budget for promoting its services to new Canadians.
- Canadian Heritage, which will have $1.5 million to put together a new campaign to highlight the planned celebrations surrounding Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.
On Tuesday, CBC News reported that a $4.3-million ad campaign launched by Veterans Affairs Canada last year was deemed "effective" by the department despite internal polling that revealed the ads were mocked and derided by many viewers.
While the Conservatives will likely be able to dismiss Brison's complaint as a standard political attack, it might be more difficult to dismiss Wudrick's call for an outside review process, given the long-standing crosslinks between the CTF and the party.
In addition to Kenney, who served as the federation's CEO prior to his election to office in 1997, Conservative MP John Williamson was the organization's federal director for several years before signing on as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications in 2009.
Several former ministerial staffers, including one-time Kenney press secretary Candice Malcolm and ex-Harper aide Kevin Lacey have also worked with the CTF since leaving the Hill.
Neither Williamson nor the Prime Minister's Office have responded to requests from CBC News for comment on the CTF's call for a third-party review process of taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns.