Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to the motion from my liberal colleague, the member for Ottawa South, on the very serious issue of wasteful partisan advertising.
Also, Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to be splitting my time with the hon. member for Winnipeg North.
All members of this House have an obligation to ensure the hard-earned dollars of taxpayers are spent responsibly, which is why this debate on the use of public funds for partisan ineffective advertising is so very important. At a time when the current Conservative government preaches fiscal restraint and belt-tightening to everyone else, it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on self-promotion. For over nine years, the Conservatives have used taxpayer money to broadcast highly partisan advertising, often containing little to no useful information. Between fiscal years 2006-07 and 2014-15, the Government of Canada spent $758 million on advertising.
According to figures revealed in media reports today, the current Conservative government is planning to spend $13.5 million to promote its pre-election budget in April and May alone; $13.5 million of taxpayer money to promote targeted tax breaks.
It has wasted millions of dollars on advertising during high-profile events when the cost to do so is so much higher, such as the Academy Awards, the Grammys, the Super Bowl, the World Junior Hockey Championships, and the NHL playoffs, while refusing to disclose the costs to Canadians.
The Conservatives have repeatedly used taxpayer money to pay highly partisan advertising during some of the most expensive time slots on television, including the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup finals; a time slot that, by the way, costs over $100,000 for a 30-second ad. This is simply unacceptable and irresponsible. I can only imagine the number of young students who could find jobs with that money.
It is not just Liberals who are concerned about this issue. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an organization where the Minister of Defence served as CEO and the Conservative member for New Brunswick Southwest served as national director, has called upon the government to end these taxpayer-funded partisan ads.
In a recent release, the organization's federal director 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 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 current government has spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns, advertising programs that do not even exist yet.
Earlier this month, I was watching TV and, to my surprise, I saw a government ad advertising proposed tax measures, such as the so-called family tax cut that has not been approved by Parliament. In fine print, I saw the words “subject to parliamentary approval” written across the screen.
Surely the government should be waiting until its program or measure has actually been approved by Parliament before advertising it.
This is not the first time a government ad has advertised a program that did not exist, but I hope we can make it the last, as a result of this responsible motion by the Liberals that we are discussing before this House.
A particularly egregious example of this occurred in 2013 when Advertising Standards Canada forced the government to pull its May 2013 ad campaign, calling it misleading. Advertising Standards Canada sent a letter to an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development, stating that the Government of Canada had breached the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards by airing commercials that ask Canadians to apply for the Canada job grant. At the time, the grant did not exist and no provinces had agreed to the potential program, despite the fact that the original model required provinces to pay for one-third of the grant.
Advertisements have also continued after a program has ended. In yet another example of waste, the government spent $37.4 million promoting the Conservative economic action plan since the program ended. Even when the programs advertised do exist, government public polling about its own advertising campaigns has consistently shown that the ads have little to no effect on Canadians. The vast majority of them report that they did nothing upon seeing a Government of Canada advertisement. According to a government-funded poll on the effectiveness of the 2013 budget ads, only three respondents of the 2,003 surveyed actually visited the action plan website and not a single person called the 1-800-O-Canada number promoted in the ad.
Ads by the Government of Canada aired overseas do not fare any better. A series of ads in the Washington, D.C. area subway stations praising Canada's environmental record and oil industry were found to have little effect, according to research funded by the government itself. Even so, the Conservative government decided to extend this campaign using $22.7 million over two years. I repeat, $22.7 million for ineffective subway advertisements in a foreign capital. Just think what Canadians could do with that money. Just think of the vulnerable Canadians who could use that in programs that this very government has cut, programs that have been so needed by the most vulnerable in our country. The government's research shows these vague, partisan ads are not working, and yet it continues to fund them with taxpayers' own dollars.
At the same time as the Conservative government is spending over a quarter of a billion dollars on ineffective partisan advertising, sometimes for programs that do not yet exist, there are people throughout our country who are struggling to make ends meet and having to tighten their belts to provide for their families. This, too, is blatantly unacceptable. The Conservatives should focus on strengthening the economy and helping to create jobs, not spending taxpayers' money on expensive partisan ad campaigns.
This most recent budget by the Conservative government built an artificial surplus on the backs of Canadians by cutting programs and services that are, indeed, meant to help the most vulnerable in our country. This is part of a larger pattern, unfortunately. In recent years, the government closed nine regional Veterans Affairs offices, which helped veterans who really need our support, who have given so much on behalf of our country, and yet when they need us to be there for them, the government is not there.
It ended funding to low-income co-operative housing units and raised the age of eligibility for old age security from 65 to 67. I know people who just cannot work beyond age 65 and if they are not eligible until age 67, they are going to have to turn to programs in their provinces, assisted welfare programs, which pay a lot less than they would get on old age security.
It is not right that throughout our country we are seeing reduced health care funding to the provinces by nearly $36 billion in the name of financial prudence and austerity. The Conservative government spent more than $100,000 in one year to increase the reach of Twitter posts by Veterans Affairs Canada while neglecting veterans themselves. Last year, Veterans Affairs Canada spent $4.3 billion on an ad campaign advertising rehabilitation, financial support, mental health services and career transition services, while closing the very offices that veterans would need to visit or get in touch with to discuss these services. By going forward with all of these services, the Conservatives still neglect veterans because they do not make it possible for them to be able to access the services. The backlash from viewers was noticeable.
The backlash from viewers was noticeable. According to an internal analysis, when asked to describe the main point of the ad, some 150 people who saw the ad said that it was either that veterans were being neglected or it was government self-promotion for not doing enough for veterans. Despite the backlash, the department claimed the campaign was effective.
Liberals would remove the partisanship from taxpayer-funded advertising and ensure that government ads only provide useful information to Canadian taxpayers. The Liberal member for Ottawa South has a bill at second reading that would take the partisanship out of government advertising by saying that the Auditor General must approve the content before it is broadcast.
We have seen that system work in Ontario. During the previous Progressive Conservative government's tenure, taxpayers paid for commercials that featured then-premier Mike Harris. In 2004, the Liberal government in Ontario—