Critics say McKenna's budget videos may cross the line into self-promotion
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, March 24, 2017. (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Wednesday, April 5, 2017 9:02PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 6, 2017 11:08AM EDT
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is defending the use of her department’s resources to produce videos in which she promotes the Liberal government’s new federal budget.
McKenna last week posted two professionally produced videos on social media in which she alone appears on screen discussing the economic blueprint.
“Budget 2017 was a big step forward,” she says.
In addition to helping stop climate change, she says, the budget will “also create good, well-paying jobs.”
Unlike most informational government videos, McKenna alone appears on-screen throughout the videos, mostly in close-ups, discussing how the budget will help create a healthier environment.
The videos were artfully edited by department staff, in the style of political campaign ads, with colourful graphics and the Government of Canada wordmark
The Liberals last May introduced new rules on non-partisan advertising that restrict MPs and ministers from appearing in taxpayer-funded ads and also prohibit them from promoting spending initiatives that, like the federal budget, have not yet been approved by Parliament.
The rules were announced by Treasury Board President Scott Brison in response to what the Liberals claimed was a string of abuses of government advertising by the previous Conservative government, including the contentious Economic Action Plan ads and then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s 24 Seven videos.
McKenna’s office maintains that the videos she posted are not ads and are not covered by the new policy because, although they were produced by Environment Canada staff, the department did not pay to place them on Twitter or Facebook.
“I communicate with Canadians in all sorts of channels,” she said Wednesday.
“We do it through press releases. We do it through speeches. I do it through social media because it’s very important that we act in a transparent way.”
McKenna drew fire last year over a CTV News report that her department spent more than $6,700 on a photographer to take pictures of her and her staff at a conference on climate change in Paris. She later said she had asked the department to review its policy with an eye to cutting costs.
Conservative MP Ed Fast said the new videos appeared to be intended to promote the minister.
“She is making a video on the taxpayer’s dime, essentially promoting herself and her government’s budget,” he said.
“That is clearly offside based on the policy the Liberals themselves brought in… It’s a very clear violation of that policy.”
New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen said he didn’t accept the assertion that the videos shouldn’t be considered advertisements.
“They’re splitting hairs and it’s not going to wash,” Cullen said.
“They are self-promoting. They’re using government resources to put it together. And putting something on Twitter and Facebook is a form of advertising in 2017.”
Queen’s University political science professor Jonathan Rose, who studies government advertising, said videos may not qualify as ads under the policy because there were no payments for broadcast time or print space.
But, he added, “It’s a violation of the spirit or a violation of what an advertisement is.”
“The big question is a simple one: should taxpayers be paying for information that is arguably partisan,” he said.
In Opposition, the Liberals criticized the Conservatives for videos that featured then-employment and social development minister Pierre Poilievre discussing the government’s child-benefit payments.
Like McKenna’s videos, those ads were also produced by his departmental staff, although they included some who worked overtime.
“When the employment minister uses taxpayer money for self-promotion videos to get re-elected and then has the gall to say that he is merely informing Canadians about government policy, it is like a slap in the face to all Canadians who expect accountability,” Liberal MP Marc Garneau said at the time.
The Liberals were also critical of the PM 24 Seven videos that summarized the prime minister’s activities. The weekly videos were produced by staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and distributed only online.