OTTAWA — The Conservative government is spending $3.5 million this year to advertise a child care benefit that was passed last year but is central to the Conservatives’ re-election campaign, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.
This appears to be in addition to the $13.5 million that Finance Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency are planning to spend to promote last week’s federal budget.
Documents obtained by HuffPost detail an estimated $3.5 million contract awarded in March to advertise the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB). The ad campaign is also designed to encourage parents to register for the UCCB claim online — although those already receiving the benefit don’t have to do anything to get the new money.
The Liberals pointed to the contract Monday as further evidence that the Conservative government is shamelessly using taxpayers money to promote the Tory brand.
“It’s a deliberate commandeering of public resources as a continued attempt to drive up the Conservative brand in Canadian society,” Ottawa Liberal MP David McGuinty told The Huffington Post Canada. The $3.5 million would have been better spent enhancing health care services and improving pensions for seniors living in poverty, he said.
The new ad campaign for the UCCB is green and Conservative blue, which McGuinty said is intended to confuse the viewer. “This is cheating the democratic system,” the Liberal MP said. “It’s using public resources for other purposes than they were intended.”
McGuinty has called for a third-party review process that would ensure there is no use of party colours in any federal government advertising. His party introduced a motion Monday, modelled on his private members’ bill, that will be voted on Tuesday.
It calls for the federal government to submit all advertising to a third-party review process before it is approved, to ensure that it is an appropriate use of public funds. The Liberal motion also notes that, since 2006, the government has spent nearly $750 million on advertising and contends that “a great deal of this has been partisan advertising that serves no public interest.”
The Liberals recently purchased ads during the Stanley Cup playoffs underscoring the same message.
The NDP plans to support the Grit motion. Ethics critic Charlie Angus told HuffPost that he wasn’t surprised by the new $3.5 million on UCCB ads — money that he said could be spent giving more than 4,800 children annual benefits — because this was an “election budget.”
“This is really underlying the Conservatives electoral message, it has little to do with the public interest,” he said.
Stephanie Rea, the spokeswoman for Treasury Board president Tony Clement, defended the Conservative government's spending on ads last week, saying it is the responsibility of the government to communicate with Canadians on important programs and services that are available to them. “Advertising is a key way for the government to inform Canadians about important issues, such as tax credits and public health issues,” she said.
Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he would boost benefits for children under the age of six to $160 from $100 a month and provide an additional $60 benefit to all children age seven to 17. The measures were passed by Parliament in November, and the benefits kicked in in January, though payments won’t be made until July — three months before the federal election.
The federal government has had trouble getting Canadians to sign on to receive the free money, so the government has asked the media for help in reaching hundreds of thousands of families across the country who have yet to register with the Canada Revenue Agency.
But that didn’t stop the spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation from also calling for a review of the ad spending by a non-partisan body.
“The government needs to put vetting power for ad campaigns into the hands of an independent officer like the Auditor General, as is the case in Ontario,” Aaron Wudrick, the group’s federal director said. “Yes, there are legitimate reasons for governments to advertise, but until they give power to someone else to sign off, there are going to be legitimate criticisms of many of their advertising campaigns.”
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