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Feds spent $33-million on ads, axed stimulus promotion in first year under Liberals

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Finance Canada slashed its ad spending dramatically, while ads for the census and Canada-150 campaigns drove costs in the top-spending departments.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi is overseeing a 10-year plan to pour money into infrastructure projects around Canada. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The Liberal government won’t be buying ads to promote its multibillion-dollar infrastructure program, says a spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

After promising to end partisan-tilted government advertising campaigns in the run-up to the 2015 election, the Liberals in their first year in power slashed government spending on promotion of a stimulus program started under the former Conservative government, and have no plans to replace it with ads for their own economic stimulus scheme, said spokesperson Kate Monfette.

Finance Canada spent just $29,809 on ads between the time the Liberal cabinet was sworn in in November 2015 and the beginning of December 2016, according to documents tabled in the House of Commons, one of the smallest ad-spending totals among government entities during that time. In the first eight months of 2015, under the previous Conservative government, the department had spent $5.9-million on ads promoting the Economic Action Plan, a multi-year stimulus program rolled out in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession.

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The Finance Department had spent $33.4-million on TV, print, radio, and internet ads promoting the Economic Action Plan over the previous three years.

The Liberals axed Economic Action Plan ads immediately upon taking office, even removing them from government websites. The then-opposition Liberals and others had criticized the Conservatives for running those ads, some of them in Tory blue, accusing them of shoring up public support for their government, instead of trying to inform the public about government programs or services they could access.

The Liberals have, however, drawn up new signs to run alongside infrastructure projects funded by their own stimulus program.

The new signs aren’t particularly educational either, but were designed without an emphasis on party colours or any one level of government. The sign designs include a government of Canada logo alongside logos for provincial and municipal partners in the projects. The Economic Action Plan signs had only advertised the federal government’s contribution.  

You can expect to see signs like this pop up next to construction projects in urban areas funded by the Liberal government’s infrastructure program. The government has slightly different designs for projects in rural or northern communities. Image courtesy of the office of the transport minister

Ms. Monfette said she could not provide a total cost for all of the new signs, as they would be optional—typically at the discretion of the municipal partner in a project—and paid for through the budget for each individual infrastructure project. The signs would cost a few hundred dollars each, depending on their size, she said, and would be considered by the government to be infrastructure spending, not advertising. The government sees advertising as paid messages placed in media such as newspapers, TV, radio, internet, and theatres.

Conservative MP Dianne Watts, (South Surrey-White Rock, B.C.) her party’s infrastructure critic, said it was “premature” for the Liberal government to draw up promotional signs for the infrastructure projects, given that the vast majority of the money promised for infrastructure in last year’s budget has yet to be matched to real projects.

The Parliamentary Budget Office found that only $4.6-billion of the $13.6-billion promised for projects between 2016-2018 in last year’s federal budget had been allotted to specific projects so far, according to a report issued Feb. 2.

The Liberals have also moved to defer the spending of $828-million on infrastructure from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018, the Canadian Press reported.

“I think their primary focus should be on getting these projects built to create jobs, and only then worry about signs,” said an emailed statement from Ms. Watts’ office.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s department axed almost all of its advertising spending after the Liberals came into power. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Tourists targeted in international ad campaign

Advertising campaigns urging Canadians to sign up for the military, complete the census, and celebrate their history drove the federal government’s ad spending during the first year under the Liberal government.

The feds spent or signed off on more than $33.3-million for ad campaigns between the time the Liberal cabinet was sworn in and early December 2016, according to documents made public in response to an MP’s question tabled in the House.

That figure covers money set aside for some ad campaigns that are still in progress. The spending figures are also split over two fiscal years, and follow a pre-election pause in government ad spending that makes direct comparisons to previous years tricky.

Statistics Canada led all government bodies in spending on advertising during that period, at $7.6-million. The agency bought ad space on television, radio, in print media, social media platforms, on the internet, and at transit stations as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the census, encourage Canadians to complete it online, and to recruit census staff across the country, according to a spokesperson.

The agency runs ad campaigns in the lead-up to the census every five years. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, which was split between the current Liberal and previous Conservative governments, Statistics Canada spent $6-million preparing the census ad campaign, according to an annual government report.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada followed behind Statistics Canada, having spent or signed off on about $4.8-million worth of contracts during the first year of the Liberal government. That figure covers almost all of the ad spending by the department in 2015-2016 as well as the spending planned for 2016-2017, according to spokesperson Nancy Chan.

IRCC ran an international ad campaign during that time to raise awareness of the new Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) program, which requires foreign nationals from almost all visa-exempt countries to fill out an online form and pay $7 to gain entry to Canada by air. Canada’s tourism lobby had warned the government that tourists from other countries may be caught off guard by the new requirement.

IRCC ran ads from February to March 2016 in the top 10 source countries for visitors to Canada: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Italy, and the United States (where citizens are exempt from the ETA requirement, but permanent residents are not), according to department spokesperson Johanne Nadeau.

The department ran another digital ad campaign about the ETA from October of last year up until this February, which also targeted Canadian dual citizens to remind them to use only their Canadian passports to enter Canada under the ETA system.

Canadian Heritage also spent about $4-million preparing an ad campaign to promote the Canada-150 celebrations, and National Defence spent more than $3-million on a digital ad campaign to recruit men and women to in-demand jobs in the military.


Ad contracts by department: Nov. 4, 2015 to Dec. 5, 2016

Department or agency Value of contracts
Statistics Canada $7,672,502
Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship $4,809,660
Canadian Heritage $3,987,920
National Defence $3,139,038
Veterans Affairs $2,427,296
RCMP $2,382,510
Public Safety $1,768,450
Parks Canada $1,749,691
Employment and Social Development $1,130,763
Health Canada $953,472

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