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Tories yank $4-million in budget ads before election call

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds copies of his budget in the House of Commons on March 22, 2011.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Economic Action Plan broadcast ads are fading to black, but the blue-and-green billboards for the program will stay in place as politicians fan out looking for votes.

The government's promotion of its stimulus-spending measures prompted repeated objections that the websites, billboards and television ads blurred the line between traditional government advertising and partisan promotion of the Conservative party at taxpayers' expense.

Facing certain defeat on Friday in the House of Commons, the Conservatives decided not to spend $4-million that Finance Canada had set aside to advertise its now dead-on-arrival 2011 budget.

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Officials at Finance Canada had already dipped into some of the cash to prepare a national media blitz to promote the budget. However, that campaign, under the theme of the "next phase" of Canada's Economic Action Plan, won't see the light of day.

However, the previous phase, highlighted by the much criticized blue-and-green billboards scattered across the country, will remain well-publicized.

Under Treasury Board rules, federal governments are not allowed to advertise themselves during an election campaign, but government officials don't consider the signs to be advertising because billboards are not considered part of the media under the policy.

"This is a standard approach during elections," said Jen Powroz, an official with Infrastructure Canada.

Conservatives took plenty of heat over the sheer volume of signs during the past two years of stimulus spending. Opposition critics noted that no project was too small to merit the signage - including one in PEI to replace a doorknob.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter said he does consider the signs as advertising, but he will be happy to see them on the campaign trail.

"If I'm talking to someone who's near a sign, I will just clearly say to them, 'Right there in front of you is more abuse of power of this government with taxpayer dollars,' " he said. "We've never seen a propaganda machine like this."

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Even as the stimulus spending came to an end this year, TV spots advertising the projects appeared to ramp up.

Government records show Ottawa planned to spend at least $65.4-million on government ads in the fiscal year ending March 31.

That includes Finance Canada's $5-million to promote the Economic Action Plan, $6.5-million in Canada Revenue Agency ads about tax credits the Conservatives have introduced, and $14.5-million for the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada campaigns Benefits for Canadian Families, Helping Canadian Workers and Apprentices, and Jobs of the Future.

The $4-million to advertise the 2011 budget was set aside nearly a year ago, when neither the budget date nor the political climate in which it would be delivered were known. Earlier this month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the ad campaign would go ahead but that it was highly unlikely all of the money would be spent. That plan changed.

"As it became increasingly likely the opposition parties were going to plunge the country into a reckless election by voting against the budget, we deemed it appropriate to not advertise on the next phase of Canada's economic action plan," Mr. Flaherty's spokesman, Chisholm Pothier, wrote in an e-mail.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff sent an open letter on Thursday to Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council, asking him to ensure all advertising ends on Friday, when the Conservative government is expected to be defeated. The official campaign would not start until after the Prime Minister visits the Governor-General and an election is formally declared.

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The Prime Minister's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, posted a message on Twitter on Thursday afternoon suggesting all government advertising has stopped.

"There are no ads airing since Coalition wants a reckless election," he wrote. Yet hours later, ads continued to appear on television during prime time promoting the merits of the economic action plan.

Political parties pay for campaign ads, which are financed with individual donations and legislated subsidies from taxpayers.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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