February 27, 2014 6:05 pm
Updated: February 27, 2014 10:34 pm

Government earmarks emergency funding for ad campaign


OTTAWA — The Conservative government gave Public Safety permission to dip into a federal emergency fund to help finance a $4.5-million advertising campaign, accounting documents show.

Public Safety has yet to draw from the account, which has been used in the past for nuclear repair and First Nations reserves, but the money remains earmarked should the department need extra cash for its anti-cyberbullying ad campaign. They won’t say why they needed the emergency cash.

The Opposition says points to a lack of financial management in government.

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“Advertising anti-cyberbullying is a good reason to advertise. That’s not the problem. The problem is the lack of administrative oversight and predictions with regards to the funds this program would need,” said NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat. “It looks like they’re trying to sneak this expense through at the last minute.”

Each year, Parliament approves a purse for the Treasury Board to use at its discretion to help pay for “urgent or unforeseen” spending requirements. That fund was pegged at $750 million in 2013-14.

Whatever the Treasury Board decides legitimately meets that criteria can receive funding without further approval from MPs and Senators. When departments are authorized to spend money from the contingency fund, it is treated as a loan they’re expected to repay.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that the government would use the contingency fund for advertising,” said Liberal MP John McCallum. “As MPs, we vote on this funding for the government to use only in the case of emergencies, and I hardly think advertising counts as an emergency.”

It looks like they’re trying to sneak this expense through at the last minute.

– Mathieu Ravignat, NDP treasury board critic

Reasons the government has dipped into this coffer in the past, include funding an increase in on-reserve assisted living programs, and to help Atomic Energy of Canada Limited repair reactors and meet health, safety and security standards at the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario.

Public Safety, meanwhile, asked for $4.5 million to “begin with their government advertising programs.”

Earlier this year, the department announced a television advertising blitz to raise awareness on cyberbullying and its legal consequences. The campaign seeks to remind teens and parents to beware what they post online and share with friends through their phones.

At $4.5 million, the program represents close to four per cent of Public Safety’s operating budget.

Asked why the advertising funding was considered “urgent or unforeseen,” a spokeswoman at Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s office said there was concern the advertising requirements could interfere with Public Safety’s other responsibilities.

“With the expected advertising campaign launch dates in January and February, Public Safety could have insufficient spending authority … to meet their obligations,” an email read. “As a result of this risk, the item was considered urgent.”

According to the department’s most recent quarterly financial report, however, it had spent only 45 per cent of its operating budget as of September 2013, leaving 55 per cent for the remaining two quarters of the year.

Officials from Public Safety deferred all questions to the Treasury Board, refusing to answer exactly why they might need to dip into an emergency fund to bankroll their ads.

 Public Safety could have insufficient spending authority … to meet their obligations

– Treasury Board

In their most recent speech from the throne, the Conservatives made special note of the tragic deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd and Todd Loik, all teenagers who took their lives after enduring cyberbullying. The speech made a pledge to introduce legislation to help police and prosecutors address the ongoing issue.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay later introduced a bill, but it hasn’t been on the floor of the House of Commons since November. At the time, it was criticized for being less about cyber-bullying and more about the cyber-surveillance in a bill shot down in the previous Parliament.

Although there was no mention of advertising in the speech, Treasury Board pointed to that commitment as a reason to support the advertising.

“The anti-cyberbullying campaign supports the government’s commitment, given in the October 2013 speech from the throne, to help protect children from criminal invasions of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse by raising awareness among Canadians,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The Conservatives have come under fire for advertising spending, particularly on the government’s recent $2.5 million campaign to push the Canada Job Grant, a program that hadn’t launched (and still hasn’t).

“This lack of management from the government can be seen in a lot of the advertising they’ve done,” the NDP’s Ravignat said. “Whether they’re advertising a program that doesn’t exist or they’re scrambling to find funds or trying to justify the funds they’re using for vacuous advertisements.”

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