Michael Lapointe, The Hill Times
Advertising funding allocated to the federal Department of Natural Resources totalled $9-million in 2012-2013 according to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and represented just over 14 per cent of total government advertising expenditures last year.
But this year, funding projections for natural resources promotion increased by more than 83 per cent to $16.5-million after supplementary estimates tabled in late March indicated the ministry was seeking an extra $4.5-million in addition to the original $12-million departmental advertising budget allocated for 2013-2014.
According to NDP MP Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.), this is a "7,000 per cent increase since 2010-11," something which Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) didn't disagree with and said was necessary to "raise awareness of Canada's environmental record and U.S.-Canada shared energy interests," during a Committee of Whole debate on Natural Resources Canada's spending estimates in the House on May 21.
But this year's projected advertising spending blitz has come under fire from both opposition parties in Parliament, as well as from Canadian labour groups who view the federal government's Responsible Resource Development initiative as a distraction from more pressing issues within the natural resources sector. Critics are also unhappy with the lack of detailed information regarding exactly how these funds are being spent.
In an email to The Hill Times, Mr. Oliver stated that "the advertisements provide specific facts about measures taken by the government to protect the environment and other information of Responsible Resource Development."
Mr. Oliver also indicated that "details surrounding advertising expenditures will be published by the government in the annual report on government advertising activities."
Several months after the initial tabling of the federal budget, however, these details have yet to emerge.
The government has made the promotion of Canada's natural resources export sector a major priority for a number of years, as figures show that natural resources account "for 15 per cent of our gross domestic product and 50 per cent of our exports," with more than $650-billion in new investment expected from more than "600 major resource projects planned across Canada" according to the 2013 federal budget.
In the 2013-2014, Report on Plans and Priorities from Natural Resources Canada, Mr. Oliver also emphasized that Canada's prosperity depends "on expanding and diversifying markets for energy, mineral and forest products" and that the government is "working with partners to support infrastructure development, reduce market access barriers, and brand Canada as a reliable and responsible supplier of resources."
But the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada took issue with the government's emphasis on export markets in a May 27 press release, specifically referring to the recent promotion of the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States. The union says spending should be directed towards enhancing environmental regulations at home instead, and explained that "since July 2011 there have been at least 25 other pipeline promotion trips to the U.S. by Canadian ministers, deputy ministers, and provincial premiers." Each trip reportedly costs "up to $45,000" according to the union.
Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada, said that "last year Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver denounced environmental groups that receive international funding as a threat to the Canadian regulatory system, and now he's allocating millions of dollars in public money to intervene in U.S. politics."
He said he was concerned with what he feels is government hypocrisy in claiming to support free markets for Canadian energy products while at the same time spending "tens of millions of dollars in support of a private corporation's international lobbying efforts" over the past couple of years.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Coles said "it is a totally inappropriate expenditure of public funding under any circumstance to do the bidding of very rich multinational corporations," going so far as to suggest that the government's long-standing emphasis on exporting energy products could even be detrimental to the long-term health of the Canadian labour market.
"It's about the concept of taking unprocessed resources from Canada and shipping them to a foreign nation, subsidized by the Canadian government in all kinds of ways, and leaving behind the environmental degradation and a huge economic loss to Canada," he explained.
Mr. Coles said that the evidence is "irrefutable if you upgrade the bitumen in Canada there is not thousands of jobs gained, but tens of thousands of jobs gainedand that doesn't include the refining of it."
Liberal MP Marc Garneau (Westmount-Ville-Marie, Que.), his party's industry, science, and technology critic, said in an email that it's "certainly legitimate for the government to promote Responsible Resource Development given its importance to both the economy and the environment," but also maintained that the ads shouldn't come across as government propaganda.
Mr. Garneau also pointed out that there are cheaper lobbying mechanisms available to the government, as "one can argue that greater emphasis on diplomatic efforts would be more effective as a way of Canada's resources." He said he felt that the provinces have done a "better job of promoting their resources through international meetings."
His bottom line: the increasing amount being spent by this government on ads "points to the fact that it is on the defensive for reasons of credibility."
U.S. President Barack Obama has the final say on whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, something which both politicians and business leaders in Canada are well aware of. In a recent interview with another reporter from The Hill Times, Mr. Oliver addressed the ongoing delays in receiving approval for the construction of the pipeline.
"One day the decisions will be made and we'll see how we've done," Mr. Oliver said. "These things don't happen instantly. In respect to a market of opportunity, that is in the tens of billions of dollars, we need to expend the effort. We're expecting the effort that we need to maximize the chances of a positive result" Mr. Oliver said.
The government's most recent international lobbying effort came on July 22 when Mr. Oliver met with leaders of the Korean business community in Vancouver where he "reiterated the Harper government's priority of enhancing international relationships to increase opportunities for Canada's natural resource sectors," in a news release. He specifically addressed the export of liquefied natural gas to South Korea, as "the expanding economies of Asia become obvious markets" for Canada's growing natural gas sector. According to the release, South Korea is the world's second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas.
But not all the government's advertising campaign has been directed at an international audience. Domestic promotional activities are also part of the government's much larger Economic Action Plan, a public relations campaign that has been in place since 2008. The RDD initiative, first announced in October 2012, "achieves the right balance to unleash the potential of our resource sectors to create high-value jobs across Canada while strengthening safety and environmental protection," according to the government's Economic Action Plan website.
The most recent elements of the campaign have included the establishment of a new website as well as a number of radio and television spots featuring notable public figures set to air throughout the year.
One video embedded on the website features Jean-Yves Lavoie, the chief executive officer of oil and gas exploration company Junex, who explains that "we need to focus as much energy as possible on the development of major projects, projects that are still in their initial stages, those that have a smaller impact on the environment." He also highlights some of the direct benefits RRD has on Canadian society, saying that our supply of natural resources "give us the means to pay for things like our education and health systems that in turn create an important social fabric."
"And I think that for me and my family, it's important to be a part of it," Mr. Lavoie says.
Another video features Buzz Hargrove, former head of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, who currently works as the executive director of the centre for labour management relations at Ryerson University in Toronto. Speaking in favour of a provision within the program that would streamline environmental review processes for resource projects, Mr. Hargrove said that "if you can be more timely in making these decisions, you're going to bring jobs a lot faster, you're going to satisfy the demand for our products around the world a lot quicker," but warned that "you can't do that at the expense of the environment or the safety or the expense of communities like First Nations."
Mr. Oliver has given few details as to how the money would be allocated in past months, prompting complaints from opposition members unhappy with the scant information provided.
In response to a question from Mr. Julian regarding departmental advertising during the May 21 committee meeting, Mr. Oliver said that "we have allocated a significant amount of money" without providing any details as to how much of the proposed advertising budget would be spenteither internationally or at home. Mr. Oliver simply indicated that "the details of this ongoing advertising campaign will be made available at the appropriate time."
NDP MP Jamie Nicholls (Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Que.), deputy critic on energy and natural resources, said "we know they've been spending in the U.S., we know they've put up a pretty fancy website, but we don't know how much money they've spent and where, so it's hard to talk about its effectiveness when there is no transparency on the question."
Mr. Nicholls said that "we will keep trying to hold the government to account and get them to be transparent about their spending."
Although advertising expenditures continue to increase, overall departmental spending is set to decrease according to Natural Resources Canada's quarterly financial report from December 2012. This development is largely due to "a declining trend in expenditures after fiscal year 2011-12 as a result of sun-setting funding for the Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program, the ecoENERGY Retrofit-Homes program, and the ecoENERGY Technology Initiative."
These three programs, initially implemented to promote resource sustainability, household energy efficiency, and clean energy have largely expired or are set to expire within this year.
Mr. Nicholls said that although his party has asked the government about renewable energy sources and technology multiple times, the Mr. Oliver has "refused to answer those questions both in the committee as a whole and in the questioning surrounding estimates we had this spring."
Said Mr. Nicholls: "We feel that the government has put all its eggs in one basket and it's not really focused on renewables which is of course where the NDP thinks there should be more focus and more balance."
The Hill Times