Sunday, August 17, 2008

Creatively Spinning the Numbers

The National Post ran an article Friday entitled "Conservatives spent more on cultural programs than Liberals". Co-authored by David Akin and Juliet O'Neill, the article refers to a CanWest News analysis of government financial documents showing that the Conservatives have actually outspent their predecessors to the tune of $660 million, shelled out to the Department of Canadian Heritage and its portfolio of departments and agencies like the CBC, the Canada Council, etc.

At first blush, the numbers are pretty impressive: $133 million more for the CBC, $30 million more for the Canada Council, and the biggest increase for the Department of Canadian Heritage itself - up $273 million since 2006. Telefilm Canada and the CRTC got screwed, but overall the Conservatives come off as exceedingly generous patrons of the arts.

Two things make all this somewhat less impressive.

One is the information at the end of the original article that was somewhat conveniently omitted from the National Post version:

But the Conservative record on cultural spending when measured as a portion of all government spending shows that Conservatives, three years later, support the arts at about the same level that the Liberals did in their last year.

During the final budgetary year of former prime minister Paul Martin’s government, $18.06 of every $1,000 spent by the government was spent on cultural programs. That jumped in Harper’s first year in government to $19.54 but by this year it has fallen back to about where the Liberals were at $18.23 of every $1,000 spent by the government.

Using that measure - spending in one area compared to overall spending in any other area - cultural spending has fared worse than any other program in the three-year Conservative term.

The Tories have seen the portion of all spending they need to make on public debt drop by more than 22 per cent. But they have used the spending room created by smaller debt charges to boost spending, as a portion of all government spending, on security and public safety (up 15 per cent); environment and resource-based programs (up 14.4 percent) and general government services (13.7 percent.)

The second is the way in which the article defines "cultural spending". The article specifically references the budget for the Department of Canadian Heritage (about 1.4 billion dollars) and the budgets for the various agencies and Crown corporations that are included within the department's 'portfolio' such as the Canada Council, the CBC, etc. (another 2.2 billion).

The trouble is, the Department of Canadian Heritage deals with a lot more than just arts and culture. It also covers things like multiculturalism, citizenship, official languages, sport, and a slew of other areas that have little or nothing to do with what you or I would consider "arts and culture".

So, just because the department as a whole will be spending more money this year than it did two years ago doesn't necessarily mean anything for the arts community. And in fact, a big chunk of the budget increases over the past two years had to do with (you guessed it) the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

I'll let former Heritage Minister Bev Oda explain it to you...

The 2006 – 2007 Main Estimates were tabled in April, the first for this new Conservative government.

Resources for the department total 1.4 billion dollars in 2006-2007 and maintains initiatives that were announced in previous budgets and approved by the Treasury Board. A 267 million dollar increase over the previous year, was provided for the Department.

The increases can largely be attributed to increases and new funding in several areas. For example:
* 77.7 million dollars for 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic venues;
* 69.5 million dollars for the enhancement of Canadian sport development, excellence, and participation; and
* $27.4 million for the Aboriginal Peoples' Program.

In 2006 – 2007, resources for the Department's portfolio total 2.16 billion dollars, an increase of 310 million dollars over the previous year.

Increased funding includes:
* 17.5 million dollars for the Public Service Commission, primarily for program expenditures;
* 16.2 million dollars largely for program expenditures at Library and Archives of Canada; and
* 3.6 million dollars for the Canadian Museum of Nature for operating and capital expenditures.
* $50 million over 2 years for the Canada Council, a concrete display of our new governments support for arts and culture.

So, out of a total increase of $577 million for 2006-07, at least a third had nothing at all to do with the arts. And the following year, the budget for the department itself actually decreased by $22 million.

From all this, it's difficult to tell if the basic premise of the Post article is accurate or not. I do know that Akin and O'Neill should have spent a little more time digging into the numbers - or at least fought their editors to keep all of the numbers they did find.


  1. See, Jennifer, this is why you get paid the big bucks...

  2. Ah...the wonders of the "art" of number-shuffling.