Sponsorships work

Sponsorships work.

Yes, you read that right. Read it again.

Sponsorships work. Sponsorships are worthwhile. Sponsorships are effective. And they’re cost-effective, too.

Nobody is pulling your leg. And don’t just take the word of this die-hard Chrétien-era Liberal, either. Flip through the pages of this newspaper, or any other newspaper. Watch a local TV station broadcast. Listen to the radio in the car. You’ll read, or see or hear, plenty of proof, and soon enough.

The media know that sponsorships – sponsorship of local sport meets, or charity fundraising events, or cultural festivals – are terrific ways to do a lot of things. To promote their product and services. To boost awareness of their corporate “brand.” To give back to the community where the media organization does business.

That’s why the media – more than government – generally spends more on sponsorships than any other organization, by a long shot. Some years, the media pays for seventy per cent of sponsorships in Canada. Other big sponsorship spenders, historically, include brewers, distillers, and tobacco companies.

Those private interests aren’t in business to lose money. They want to turn a profit. And sponsorships help them to do that. That’s a fact.

Governments do sponsorships, too, as everyone in Canada now knows. From little sponsorships (like the side-of-the-highway sign that tells you what levels of government contributed to the costs of the construction), to big sponsorships (like multi-million-dollar tourism-promotion campaigns, which employ or benefit millions of Canadians). Governments do sponsorships all the time. And they should keep doing them, too. Because they work.

While we’re in tell-it-like-it-is mode, here’s another fact: I worked at Public Works under former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Proudly. I was there as a Minister’s Executive Assistant, and I knew quite a bit about advertising and polling. (And, yes, I knew Chuck Guité, too. I – along with all of his bosses in the public service, who promoted him over two decades – thought he did a good job.)

Back in 1993, during the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party made promises about cleaning up, and cutting, advertising and polling. On the day the new government was sworn in, Mr. Chrétien reaffirmed those commitments, outside Rideau Hall. A few days later, on December 20, 1993, the new Prime Minister sent a letter to his cabinet telling them to “minimize expenditures” for polling and advertising until new guidelines were in place.

In another letter the Prime Minister sent to his cabinet, on May 9, 1994, he told cabinet that “contracting procedures…must follow a competitive process, similar to procurement of other services purchased by the government.”

Those two letters became our mandate in 1994 and 1995: one, cutting spending on polling and advertising. And, two, creating a competitive process for those things, for the first time in Canadian history.

With the assistance of a lot of dedicated public servants, we did both of those things. By the Summer of 1994, all of cabinet – Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin included – had passed guidelines to make polling and advertising a lot more competitive and cost-effective.

At the end of June 1995, we had radically cut spending on ads and polls. In the last full fiscal year of the Brian Mulroney administration, advertising spending was $117 million. In our first full fiscal year, we reduced spending on advertising to $30 million – an $87 million reduction.

In the last fiscal year of the Conservative regime, public opinion research was at least $14 million – “with many projects not accounted for,” as the public servants told us. In our first full year, we slashed polling spending to $4 million – a $10 million drop.

And sponsorship? We didn’t spend anything on sponsorships, because the program didn’t yet exist. It wouldn’t come into being until 1997, until after the referendum.

But was it the right thing to do? Should the sponsorship program have been created in the first place?

Yes. Yes, it was the right thing to do. In November 1995, Canada came within a 1.16 per cent margin of breaking apart, forever. The separatists had effectively used pro-sovereignty sponsorship programs, for years, to help them come within a few thousand votes of destroying the greatest nation in the world.

Because Mr. Mulroney and his regime did not want to “provoke” the separatists, the Canadian concept had not been promoted in Québec for a decade – Hell, when we got into office, Canada Post told us they had a policy to not fly the Maple Leaf at Québec post offices anymore!

But we Liberals were to blame, too. We Liberals – including Messrs. Chrétien and Martin – had been doing a poor job at promoting Canada in the province of Québec. The referendum result made that obvious to anyone. Liberals had to make big changes. The Clarity Act was one of those changes. So was boosting Québec cabinet representation. And so, too, the sponsorship program.

The sponsorship program was the right thing to do. Was it properly managed? No. Obviously not. That’s why Jean Chrétien personally called in the Auditor General, and then the RCMP. (And those two phone calls, by the way, aren’t the actions of a guy who is trying to cover up anything.)

Those of us who loudly opposed the creation of the Sponsorship Inquiry did so because we felt, one, there was nothing Justice John Gomery could do that the Mounties couldn’t do better, or weren’t doing already. And, two, the inquiry’s rules of evidence would open the door to an avalanche of unproven hearsay and innuendo. We were right. The result? The reputation of federalism – Liberal or Conservative – has been destroyed in the Province of Québec for a decade.

For that reason, the separatists are stronger now than they have been in years. If a referendum were held now, the pollsters tell us the separatists would win it, easily.

Cast your imagination ahead, then, to the night that is fast, fast approaching, when we Canadians are again awaiting the result of another referendum vote. And, as the results trickle in, long into the night – and as we all contemplate the economic, legal, social and political chaos that will immediately flow from a separatist win, and affect us all personally – ask yourself one question.

In the year 2005, in an overreaction to misspending in the sponsorship program, should we have stopped promoting Canada in Québec?

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