"I think they're scrambling to counter the negative brand they've allowed the oilsands and resource development and Canada to be wrapped with," said Liberal natural resources critic Geoff Regan in an interview. "The steps that they've taken are undermining international confidence in our environmental processes and they're trying to advertise their way out of it."
The government defended the reserve fund of Natural Resources Canada deputy minister Serge Dupont, uncovered( http://o.canada.com/news/harper-government-used-cash-advance-to-pay-for-ads-promoting-oil-companies/ ) earlier this week through a federal memo( http://www.scribd.com/doc/200925510 ) obtained by Postmedia News, describing it as a "matter of financial prudence and diligence."
It is common practice for federal departments to create contingency funds for emergencies and unexpected issues, but a government guideline( http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?id=26953&!@SECTION=text ) from Treasury Board says these reserves should be set up with clear rules for how they can be managed, used and monitored.
NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian said spending a reserve fund on advertising was an inappropriate response to what he described as the "foolish measures" in the 2012 budget, which cut hundreds of millions of dollars spent on environmental monitoring of air and water pollution, while introducing legislation to reduce federal oversight of industrial projects.
"It shows the improvised nature of a government that, over the last two years, has been moving from one scandal to the next and trying to address their serious policy mistakes by throwing public money at it," said Julian, who represents a Vancouver-area riding in Parliament.
The memo, which was classified as "secret" prior to its release through access to information legislation, included a list of a dozen initiatives that received money from Dupont's fund as part of the department's budget of about $2 billion. This included a $4-million cash advance for a $9.5-million television and Internet ad campaign that said the government was protecting the environment, $3.7 million for a department division responsible for public affairs, $825,000 for a government-wide committee set up to help senior management rapidly respond to emerging energy issues, as well as $1.3 million in unidentified spending.
Natural Resources Canada declined to offer explanations for any of the items on the list, including $6.5 million from the reserve fund to restructure its corporate management, $5 million for the transformation of the nuclear research Crown corporation AECL and $3 million for an item described as a CFM contribution.
The department also declined to say whether the spending was highlighted in any published government report tabled in Parliament. Instead, it explained in written responses to questions from Postmedia News that the fund was sourced from budgets adopted by Parliament and that the purpose of the reserve was "to support time-limited corporate priorities."
Parliament's former budget watchdog, Kevin Page, suggested the government should share more details so that taxpayers know how it's spending their money.
"This was the kind of information (the Parliamentary Budget Office) sought after Budget 2012 for MPs to facilitate their scrutiny of government spending once the government indicated it would freeze direct program spending for five years," said Page, who now holds a research chair at the University of Ottawa's school of political studies. "We were told that it was beyond the PBO mandate."
Natural Resources Canada's last annual report said government advertising was one of a few areas that received more funding in 2012-13 than forecast in its budget. Overall, the $1.97-billion department budget was about $424 million less than forecast, mainly due to under spending on previously announced initiatives to help Canadians reduce energy consumption, costs and their environmental footprint.
Regan and Julian both said they would be more transparent about how taxpayer money is spent if either of their respective parties formed government after the next election. Both critics also noted that the numbers show the current Conservative administration announces environmental initiatives without actually spending the money.
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