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Budget online consultations ask feds to dump Economic Action Plan ads

The home page for the website of Canada's Economic Action Plan is shown in an sceen grab from Jan. 5, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

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The home page for the website of Canada's Economic Action Plan is shown in an sceen grab from Jan. 5, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

OTTAWA - Canadians who offered advice online in the runup to the 2014 federal budget had a consistent message for the Conservative government: dump those Economic Action Plan ads.

A so-called e-consultation organized by Finance Canada in the months before the Feb. 11 budget heard from almost 3,000 people, the highest participation of the last five years.

On the question of where the government might find savings to help balance the budget, a frequent answer was: "discontinue Economic Action Plan advertising."

And asked for general comments on the Economic Action Plan, respondents frequently gave the same answer: ditch the ads.

A Jan. 27 internal report on the online consultations was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The Finance Canada analysis noted that unlike previous years, there were no apparent special-interest-group campaigns driving the responses.

The 82-day consultation period began Nov. 7, and drew responses from all regions, also unlike previous consultations which were skewed regionally.

Participants were asked to volunteer information about their gender, income, location and occupation. The results showed the typical respondent was a well-to-do, older man in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia — not dissimilar to the Conservative caucus.

"The ratio of men to women contributors was almost 4:1," says the analysis, prepared for late finance minister Jim Flaherty.

"They self-reported as being between 40 and 60 years old with an average income of $100,000 or more."

The most-common occupation cited was "professional," followed closely by employee, business person and retiree.

Other frequent answers to the seven questions posed in the online consultation: cut taxes, remove red tape, reduce the size of government, and abolish or reorganize the Senate.

There was also strong support for income-splitting for families, as promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2011 election campaign, but only when the books are balanced.

The released analysis did not provide actual numbers for each response theme, simply pointing out their relative prevalence.

The Harper government has conducted e-consultations in the runup to budgets since first being elected in 2006. Responses peaked at 7,760 for the 2007 budget, and hit 7,421 for budget 2009, but participation rates have been anaemic since then, averaging less than 1,000.

Finance Canada, however, made special efforts to boost participation for the 2014 round, using Twitter and YouTube videos to generate interest, driving the number up to 2,935.

Political scientists and others have called the process a sham and a gimmick, giving only the illusion of consultation. The analysis acknowledges the format "does not lend itself to a precise qualitative or quantitative analysis."

Finance spokesman Jack Aubry declined to speculate why older, wealthier males were over-represented in the latest round.

The e-consultations were only one avenue for soliciting advice, he added.

"Our government closely reviewed Canadians' thoughts on the budget and consultations were circulated," he said. "Members of Parliament and ministers also went across the country to gather the thoughts of Canadians.

"Direction from the consultations to reduce government spending, increase support for families and increase support for business development and growth were included in EAP (Economic Action Plan) 2014."

Aubry did not answer directly when asked whether EAP advertising would continue, saying only that such decisions are driven largely by the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's department.

Five years of public-opinion polling by Finance Canada have shown that action-plan ads, dubbed Conservative propaganda by critics, are being tuned out by more Canadians each year. Most appear on television, but are also placed on radio, billboards, newspapers and the Internet.

The department budgeted $10 million in 2013-2014 for Economic Action Plan ads.

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