WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has spent public money conducting opinion polls and focus groups on its Steady Growth, Good Jobs advertising campaign, but the results are being kept secret under the province’s freedom of information law.
The data might be publicly available in other provinces, because the laws that dictate what governments can keep private vary from one jurisdiction to another.
In Manitoba, virtually any document prepared for the provincial cabinet must be shielded from the public view. That includes background information such as a 2013 document in which the government tested the Steady Growth, Good Jobs slogan on a select group of people before adopting it.
“The record was prepared to be discussed and/or presented to a committee of cabinet and relates to the formulation of government policy and as such is protected,” reads a response from the Finance Department to a freedom of information request from The Canadian Press.
Similarly, a report from focus-group testing earlier this year on the government’s economic agenda is being kept secret. In both cases, the government cited a section of provincial law that blocks the release of any record prepared for a minister about a matter that is to be discussed in cabinet.
There are similar laws in provinces such as Saskatchewan. But in other areas, including Alberta and Nova Scotia, only recommendations to cabinet are blocked.
The Steady Growth, Good Jobs slogan was adopted as a way of selling the government’s one-point increase to the provincial sales tax and the beefed-up infrastructure program that much of the money is going toward. At construction sites, signs with the slogan sit next to federal government ones that bear the phrase “Canada’s Economic Action Plan.”
Chris Adams, a former pollster and political science professor in Winnipeg, said governments will typically try out two or three slogans on a focus group and choose the one that resonates best.
“You start at the general level of ‘how is the government doing’ and ‘what do you think the priorities are for the government’ … and then you start moving into talking about different slogans,” Adams said.
The government has taken the Steady Growth slogan to radio, newspaper, television and online advertising. Documents obtained by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives show $619,000 was spent over a period of several months last year on advertisements and construction-site signs.
Jobs Minister Kevin Chief said the advertising lets people know their money is being used to repair roads and build public housing.
“We don’t ebb and flow (economically), we stay pretty steady,” he said. “And there’s growth, there’s demand for jobs.”
But the use of taxpayer dollars for government advertising can be murky, say analysts.
“It’s not fair that the party that’s in the government has these extra resources to market what it’s going to do,” said Royce Koop, who teaches political science at the University of Manitoba.
Alex Marland, an associate political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., said clear rules need to be developed to ensure the line between government advertising and partisan promotion is respected.
“We should just have a general list of things that are right and wrong, that any journalist can look at and say ‘you know what, in this particular jurisdiction, this crossed the line’.”
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press