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Good or good for nothing?

PM defends action-plan ads; critics say they're a waste of money

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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 "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 EAP 2013 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 "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's 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 the measures being promised are "subject to parliamentary approval."

That follows from a 1989 Speaker's 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 the ads were closer to contempt of Parliament -- which he also dismissed.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2013 A10

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