The Commons: The age of austerity, as not seen on TV

In light of spending cuts, perhaps a new advertising campaign is in order

Conservative MP Robert Goguen had apparently been up late last night, carefully reviewing the main estimates and he was keen this afternoon to rise shortly before Question Period and report back to the House with what he’d found. “Yesterday, in main estimates, there were significant reductions in the cost of prisons due to the influx of new prisoners not materializing,” the government backbencher celebrated, dismissing opposition concerns about prison spending in the process.

Mr. Goguen was being modest. At last report there were actually more individuals in prison than ever before. Which would seem to render those “significant reductions” all the more impressive. (Although the increasing violence in prisons might make it more difficult to feel good about frugality.)

This good news might’ve ruled the day were it not for those on the opposition side who’d also taken some time to review the estimates themselves. They were decidedly less enthused than Mr. Goguen.

“Mr. Speaker, at the same time that we continue to read in the estimates with respect to the cuts that are being made in front line programs, in foreign aid programs, in foreign affairs budgets, we now see that the CIC is increasing its advertising budget by $4 million, the Department of Finance is increasing its advertising budget by nearly $7 million, and the Department of Natural Resources is increasing its advertising budget by $4.5 million compared to the main estimates of last year,” interim Liberal leader Bob Rae reported, reading from a white piece of paper.

Now Mr. Rae wagged his finger in the Prime Minister’s general direction. “I would like to ask the Prime Minister how he can justify again this double standard where front line services are being cut but propaganda is being increased?”

Oddly, Mr. Harper begged to differ almost entirely. “Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister corrected, “those front line services are not being cut.”

Those who enjoy the water around Kitsilano Beach might quibble with Mr. Harper’s understanding of what constitutes a front line service.

“What is being done is ensuring that the people of Canada are aware of the programs and services that are available to them,” the Prime Minister continued. “This Parliament votes billions of dollars every year of taxpayers’ money for the benefit of the people of Canada. It is up to us to ensure they are aware of the services and the programs that they can use to better their own lives.”

Those television ads that filled nearly every break in the Oscars on Sunday are not indicative of a government that desires to promote itself to you with your own money, you’ll understand. Those sunny clips were testament to a government that deeply feels its responsibility to be accountable to you, even if that means using your money to do so.

But not too deeply, mind you.

“I would indicate to the honourable member that only 0.03% of government spending is used for advertising and communication of all sorts,” Tony Clement later advised the House, attempting to dismiss the complaints of Liberal MP Scott Brison. “Last year, our advertising budget was $83.3 million, which is well below the last full year under the former Liberal government of $111 million.”

So the Harper government prizes public accountability. But not quite as much as the previous Liberal government did.

Peggy Nash wanted to talk about cuts to VIA Rail, infrastructure funding and the Canada Revenue Agency. Jim Flaherty stood and observed that these were budgetary matters and that the budget was being prepared and that at some point he’d tell the House when the budget would be presented.

Hélène Laverdière wished to hear an explanation for cuts in foreign aid and development. John Baird stood and enthused about “Canadian leadership.” Which apparently will continue to exist, it’ll just be cheaper to exercise. Perhaps, taking a lesson from the reforms to employment insurance, foreign aid will be replaced with e-cards.

Entirely unmentioned were any savings derived from consolidating the government’s computer systems.

Later on in the afternoon, Liberal MP Sean Casey stood in his spot along the opposition back row and castigated. “Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago the Royal Canadian Legion launched a public campaign calling on the Conservatives to increase funding to the Last Post Fund. Yesterday, the Royal Canadian Legion got its answer. It is buried at page 382 of the estimates. It shows that the Last Post Fund will be cut next year by $1.4 million. At the same time, the Conservatives will increase their advertising spend by 10 times that amount,” he reported. “Why have the Conservatives put self-promotion ahead of a dignified burial for our veterans?”

This question was rather crushing, but the Veterans Affairs Minister was apparently unruffled. “Mr. Speaker, I can assure the House we will not cut like the Liberals did,” Steven Blaney offered.

He was heckled with shouts of “worse!” from the Liberal corner.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Blaney continued after the Speaker had intervened, “that the Liberals cut the Last Post Fund program and we are maintaining this funding while finding administrative savings for the 10,000 veterans who are benefiting and have benefited from this program. This program, actually, is maintained and fully funded.”

So funded less, but funded fully, but still not funded sufficiently so far as the Royal Canadian Legion is concerned.

Next was Liberal MP John McKay, who attempted to mock Defence Minister Peter MacKay by way of reports that the defence budget is set to be reduced by $4.9 billion. The minister was typically undaunted.

“Mr. Speaker, let me inject a little reality into the House,” he graciously offered. “In fact, the Conservative government has seen increases of roughly 34% in the defence budget since 2005-06. Let us roll the clock back when this member was part of the government that presided over a decade of darkness, that saw the Canadian Forces rusted out. Whether we have increased funding for procurement, for infrastructure, for salaries, for programs for soldiers, this member and this party have a sad, sorry record of not supporting the Canadian Forces.”

So there. And, indeed, for the sake of accountability, the Harper government should proceed with a new advertising campaign to clarify and celebrate all of these ways in which money is being saved and expenditures are being reduced. No more being bashful about this stuff. “Responsible Resource Development” is so 2012. “Not Not Supporting the Troops As Much As The Liberals Did” is the message for 2013.