OTTAWA - The Harper government claims a senior bureaucrat gave it the go-ahead to avoid the rules governing the look and feel of its Economic Action Plan website.

But the Conservatives are declining to provide documentary evidence of the exemption, which does not appear among hundreds of pages of memos, drafts and emails obtained by The Canadian Press under an Access to Information Act request that took more than a year to process.

Instead, the public-service paper trail leads to Oct. 1, 2009, when the Treasury Board team leader in charge of policing the government's own "Common Look and Feel" standards wrote that the exemption request for the action plan website should be denied.

The site has been sharply criticized for its partisan appearance, and on Thursday the Liberals demanded the Conservative party repay taxpayers $45 million spent on what Liberals say was partisan government advertising.

Dimitri Soudas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications, responded in an email that "Conservatives say Liberals should pay back stolen sponsorship scandal dollars."

A briefing note to then-Treasury Board President Vic Toews, according to team leader Pirthipal Singh, provided "two options and corresponding letters" regarding the website as of Oct. 1, 2009.
"Grant the exemption; Not grant the exemption," wrote Singh. "The latter is recommended."

A spokesman for current Treasury Board President Stockwell Day now says Michelle d'Auray, secretary to the Treasury Board, recommended a week later, on Oct. 9, 2009, that the exemption be granted.

And nine days after that, Toews formally gave a written all-clear "on the basis that resources should not be spent on complying with layout and design requirements that will be changing in the near future."

Day's office and the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to requests Wednesday and Thursday to produce the d'Auray document.

Without documentary evidence, the government assertion falls into the same category as previous claims that Statistics Canada bureaucrats recommended the abolition of the mandatory long-form census last spring. The head of StatsCan subsequently resigned in protest, and the "recommendation" proved to be merely a non-preferred option.

Regardless, critics note the Economic Action Plan website continues to flout the common government standards developed so that federal websites appear credible, technically accessible, uniform and non-partisan.

The website, touting the Conservative's deficit and stimulus budget of January 2009, has attracted criticism almost from its launch in March 2009.

While it has been toned down since then, non-partisan experts say it still raises eyebrows.

"If you throw up the Government of Canada website, next to the Economic Action Plan website, next to the Conservative Party of Canada website, it's pretty obvious that it's much more similar to the Conservative party site than the government of Canada website," marketing expert Audra Lesosky said in an interview Thursday.

"They have definitely departed from the rules and standards that regulate Canada's identity."
Lesosky, a director at the Winnipeg ad agency McKim Cringan George, said her firm does government work, "so we are often straddling that line between party communication and government communication.

"Everyone does this. It's definitely not a Conservative party thing. But this is so overt that it's difficult to ignore."

The website, she said, is "definitely in line with other communications pieces that were part of the (action plan) campaign.

"But it definitely breaks the rules established by the federal identity program standards."

That's been the repeated battle cry of enraged Liberals, who have complained unsuccessfully to Parliament's conflict of interest and ethics commissioner about the website.

Liberal MP Siobahn Coady, the party's Treasury Board critic, is demanding that the entire $45 million spent by the Harper government last year on advertising the Economic Action Plan should be refunded to the public purse by the Conservative party.

"The Conservatives were advised that this was a violation but plowed ahead anyway in order to blur the line between government advertising -- paid for by taxpayers -- and Conservative propaganda," Coady said in a release.

The Liberals note that on Oct. 8, 2009, MP Martha Hall Findlay formally complained in writing to Treasury Board about the website's contravention of well-publicized government rules.

The following day, Treasury Board says, the exemption was granted by the department's senior secretary.

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Question for Readers:

Is the partisan nature of the taxpayer funded Economic Action Plan in the best interests of Canadians?