Federal Budgets No Longer a “Small” matter

TORONTO – Federal budgets, or, more appropriately, the presentation of the government’s spending plan, on “budget day”, used to be a really big deal. Secrecy was the operative word, even for Parliamentarians. 

The impact of the grand revelation used to be deemed of such importance that the Minister of Finance could not rise “in his place” in the House of Commons, to read/present the budget until four o’clock when the stock exchanges in Canada would be shut down for fear that some unscrupulous types in the financial services sector might “game the process” for personal profit.

The attendant ceremony was, in retrospect, a little over the top: the Minister would buy a new pair of patent leather shoes for the occasion and show them off; the Press would be sequestered in a “lock up” where they could go over some salient points in the budget – if they could find them in the thousands of pages comprising the budget books – and MPs would be hand the same documents once the House would convene for the ceremony about 15 minutes before the Minister was scheduled to rise. Who could do their jobs?

That was 1990. Then the mirage collapsed. It would have been my second budget event. As a second-year MP, I was determined to be among the first to be interviewed by Media so that I might enlighten them and my electors with my wisdom on the budget initiatives (hah, hah). We were in opposition; the government was enjoying its second huge majority mandate. My staff and I planned to send faxes (and did) alerting them of our availability to all print and electronic media in Toronto. Hold that thought.

One journalist, Doug Small of the Global News Network, broke the story of some items in the budget. A source had secured trashed documents of the Budget Plan the day before and shared it with him. His editors gave permission. All hell broke loose. The presentation’s timing had to be adjusted. The prime Minister ordered an investigation into the leak and threatened criminal charges on perpetrators. The Press closed ranks.

The investigation expanded to the offices of Parliamentarians – including mine. My staff literally trembled when the RCMP showed up. What a way to end a budding career… would we end up in jail? I demanded that the RCMP show me the list of reporters they claimed my staff had contacted. Why, they asked. I wanted to make sure they followed orders and contacted everyone I told them to, because no Press had indicated an interest in interviewing me. As they left, I demanded a sweep of potential foreign bugs in my office, every day, so that my Parliamentary privileges would never again be breached.

On a more serious note, Doug Small was subjected to stressful investigation (you can read his story here: Doug Small – A Life In The Newsroom). Eventually, public and professional opinion understood and confirmed that the entire affair really was about re-affirming the Government’s prerogative to “restrict access temporarily” and confirming the Press’ right to pierce the veil of secrecy for the health of democracy.

Following the defeat of the Conservative Government, then led by Kim Campbell, subsequent governments adopted a more public relations approach to budget roll outs. The procedure for “authorization and legitimization” is quite elaborate, and necessarily so. However, governments now leak their own news, sometimes, as in this year’s Budget, months in advance and hiding “nuggets” until the very last moment. After the blizzard of budget announcements, we should not expect any nuggets today.

The tune and dance they have playeed is akin to the courting of a fair maiden where the words are that and only that, until decision time.