Harper ads push the partisan envelope

    (Still picture from the video "24-Seven Exclusive: Canada Stands Strong and Free")

    While it may be unfair to have taxpayers pay for partisan advertising, there is very little keeping the Canadian government from doing just that.

    “No government we have ever had at any level in Canada has a more sophisticated communications, or I would call it propaganda, strategy than the current one in Ottawa,” St. Thomas University journalism professor Michael Camp said.

    The Harper communications regime is getting revved up for the upcoming election before the writ drops, with advertisements flaunting the Prime Minister’s resolve against the threat of ISIS, pending tax-breaks, and the detriments of marijuana smoking hitting the airwaves and the Internet recently.

    Last week, the Prime Minister’s Youtube account posted

    (Still picture from the video "24-Seven Exclusive: Canada Stands Strong and Free")
    (Still picture from the video “24-Seven Exclusive: Canada Stands Strong and Free”)

    The video shows clips of the Prime Minister speaking of the threat Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses, over images of military men and women in action while dramatic music plays in the background. “Let there be no misunderstanding: we will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated,” Harper says at the end of the video.

    “What’s offensive about it is it’s somewhere in between journalism and propaganda and it’s political advocacy for a single party and the leader,” Camp said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for this stuff.”

    Camp said the online video’s lack of affiliation to the Government of Canada is an issue — especially since it must have been approved by parliament, though likely as “some line-item in the budget.” That cost couldn’t be uncovered by deadline, but the National Post reported last year that up to four public servants are involved with each episode.

    “There was never a bill before parliament asking ‘should we make a bunch of ads featuring the Prime Minister looking good, being a noble leader, taking on the toughest problems of our time?'” said Camp.

    Last November, the Government of Canada began a $2.5 million TV and radio campaign informing the public about a new tax break allowing families with children to split their income, lowering the rate of taxation on the top earner. The advertisements note that the benefit is subject to parliamentary approval.

    STU political science professor Tom Bateman says this kind of behaviour is to be expected, especially from the incumbent on an election year.

    “What’s the point of government tailoring a law and then not telling anyone about it?” he said. “I do think its just a matter of political opinion… but if the thing is government policy, it’s government policy, and when the Liberals win the next election and get in, if they do, then they can repeal that tax benefit and direct all those monies in a different direction.”

    He said historically, parties have always tried to associate themselves with the state. In the 60’s, the Liberal Party redesigned it’s logo to be red and white and feature a maple leaf, not long after the current Canadian flag was adopted.

    Bateman sees the new media landscape and fixed election dates as driving forces behind this permanent campaigning.

    “I think governments need to be in the position to respond to criticism from all corners,” he said. “I’m sure they realize that the best defense is a good offense, in which case they’re out there trying to lead debate and the journalistic agenda and they are trying to shape public opinion.”

    One public opinion the government has tried to turn is the harmlessness of marijuana consumption. This fall began a $7 million ad campaign that, in essence, claimed marijuana was 300 to 400 per cent more potent than three decades ago and that it’s bad for developing brains to be exposed to marijuana.

    Both Camp and Bateman don’t doubt this campaign was motivated by Justin Trudeau’s pro-marijuana-legalization stance, though Bateman says there is an important health message for youth and parents, too.

    Camp doesn’t think there is any new or scientific information in the ad. He considers it, like the 24-Seven video, propaganda.

    “If Harper cared to, he could see these ideas, these stories, this discussion reflected in the traditional media, including the CBC which he has been attacking since day one,” Camp said. “I find it repellant that rather than deal with the public directly with professionals and journalists, they feel that they have to create their own kind of media to go with their own objectives.”