Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is planning to spend more than $88 million to get its message out on everything from health advice to government programs related to COVID-19, CBC News has learned.
That’s on top of money that government departments have already budgeted for communicating with Canadians on other issues.
In fact, the $88.7 million the government plans to spend this year on communications and marketing related to COVID-19 is more than its annual budget for all subjects combined over the past decade.
According to supplementary estimates tabled in Parliament this week, the government plans to increase the Privy Council’s budget by $58.3 million — $48.7 million of it for communications and marketing. The move would increase the Privy Council’s budget for the coming year by 39 per cent.
The Privy Council Office serves the Prime Minister’s Office and plays a role in co-ordinating government departments.
However, that’s just part of the tab that taxpayers will be footing to send the government’s messages about its response to the pandemic out to Canadians.
Privy Council spokesman Stéphane Shank said $10 million of the new money will be used to extend an existing $30 million campaign the Public Health Agency of Canada has been running. Another $12 million will extend an existing $10 million ad campaign by the Finance department “promoting economic supports for businesses and individuals.”
The remaining $26.7 million being added to the Privy Council’s budget will be spent on “other advertising departmental initiatives related to COVID-19 as necessary.”
Shank said the money will ensure Canadians receive important information about how to stay safe and healthy, and how to access government programs.
“These efforts have and will continue to provide critical information to Canadians throughout the pandemic in four key areas: public health information, financial support for individuals, financial support for business and the economy and public safety and security information including travel advice,” wrote Shank.
While the amount pales in comparison to the billions of dollars the government is shovelling out the door to help both Canadians and companies hit by the pandemic, government spending on advertising has previously triggered controversy. For example, the “economic action plan” advertising by Stephen Harper’s government was sharply criticized by both the NDP and Liberals, including Justin Trudeau.
This time, critics say the money being spent to advertise the government’s messages on COVID-19 could be better used helping Canadians hit hard by the pandemic.
New Democratic Party House Leader Peter Julian said the money is needed by Canadians.
“When we’re talking about marketing at a time of pandemic, every single dollar that the federal government has available needs to go to support families and seniors, small business people, students. People who are struggling to get through this pandemic,” said Julian.
“For tens of millions of dollars to go to marketing at this critical time, it just defies belief. It shows that the government’s priorities are not in the right place. They really need to make sure that those resources are invested to support Canadians.”
Conservative Treasury Board Critic Tim Uppal said the new money for Privy Council is on top of existing budgets.
“So now, we have additional funds that are on top of all the other departments that are also spending money on communications and marketing,” Uppal said. “It’s starting to look like this government is very concerned about their communications and marketing plan.”
Julian and Uppal also question why the money is being added to the budget of the Privy Council, rather than individual departments like Health Canada or the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“I don’t think anyone would have difficulty if they were increasing the budget for the Public Health Agency,” said Julian.
“The Privy Council Office has traditionally been the political support for the prime minister and as a result of that, it’s doubling disturbing that at a time when so many people are struggling and so many people are looking for resources just to get them through the month that the federal government and Mr. Trudeau are choosing to spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing.”
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org