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How Budget Day became all about election-watching, not money

Nick Taylor-VaiseyWebsite

Parliament reflected in a skyscraper. Creative Commons photo by Vince Alongi.

Parliament reflected in a skyscraper. Creative Commons photo by Vince Alongi.

The governing Conservatives are about to table a budget that spends many billions of dollars. It sets the agenda of virtually every government department and it means a lot to anyone who pays taxes in Canada. But when the budget is introduced by the finance minister tomorrow, the prevailing Ottawa groupthink says it’s not about the money.

Instead, we all wonder: will the budget trigger an election?

That the next few days will have nothing to do with the details of the budget and everything to do with an election that seems inevitable when a minority parliament makes the decisions. The spring session, much like the fall session on the other side of the parliamentary calendar, presents a window of opportunity for opposition parties in the mood for an election. It might well be impossible to avoid those twice-annual tugs of war, where jockeying and horse trading rule the day, until one party leads a majority government—or, as we call it in Canada, a friendly dictatorship.

Indeed, during the majority governments of not so long ago, elections happened when the government wanted them to happen, or when it ran out of time and had no other choice.

But now, parliament revolves around potential election triggers, and Budget Day is like a gold rush for election speculators.

Not long after the crack of dawn tomorrow, hundreds of journalists will enter an hours-long lockup at Ottawa’s grand old train station and study the details of the budget documents. They’ll pen their first stories while cooped up, and no doubt place final bets on the big question: election or not? None will emerge until the finance minister rises in the House of Commons to detail the government’s plans.

When he rises to speak, that first raft of budget stories will hit the wires and the secret will be out.

Meanwhile, outside of the House of Commons, the finance minister’s opposition critics and their leaders will already have reporters badgering them for their comment—not on the details of the budget, of course, but on whether or not it’s enough to postpone an election.

It all happens so fast. So are those questions, asked so soon and with such demand, fair to politicians who have a huge federal budget sitting in front of them?

“It’s completely unfair,” says David Akin, Sun Media’s national bureau chief. “I suppose you have to ask. But [politicians] seem to be punished for not having a decent answer.”

Don Newman, on the other hand, says those questions are unavoidable these days.

“When the embargo is lifted, political parties flood the foyer,” says Newman, the chair of Canada 2020 and erstwhile dean of budget reporting—he covered 30 throughout his career. “And government ministers do the same.”

It’s a race to get the message out, and there’s only time for basic talking points.

And then, Akin says, finance minister Jim Flaherty becomes chief budget salesman. “The government will put an immediate sell on the budget,” Akin says. “The finance minister will do the rounds on the television networks, and he’ll do op-eds the next day.”

The Big Thing

Akin defends Ottawa’s focus on the budget.

“The budget document itself is, I would say, the most important document a government will produce in a given year—money makes things happen,” he says. And that importance is confirmed by local papers, Akin says, the editors of which decide which story their readers should see on the front page.

“Those editors, who are very closely connected to their local communities, are making that decision,” Akin says. “Editors vote with their front pages, and they think it’s the most important story year in and year out, just based on the play it gets.”

It wasn’t always like that, says Toronto Star senior political writer Susan Delacourt. In years past, she never had time to cover budgets. That’s because there were larger stories in the nation’s capital.

“It’s my overall impression that budget lockups have become such large affairs because everything else is not,” she wrote in an email. “The only big things the federal government does these days is either spend money or cut taxes.”

Delacourt said the “big things” of the past included national debates around the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords—governance based on ideas, not just money. But now, Delacourt says, the budget is just about “the only show in town.”

Whither long-term planning?

Newman says the current government would do well to avoid planning budgets around potential elections, since it leads to short-term planning.

“I’m a little disappointed that politicians and journalists have disregarded fixed election date laws,” he says, adding that governments “would have to have more far-reaching plans.”

The current government passed fixed-date legislation in 2006, and it didn’t last a single election cycle before Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an election in September 2008. If he were to follow that law to the letter, Harper could work toward a four-year plan where each budget was but one part of the longer-term whole that he could present to parliament on an annual basis.

But even that scenario might not silence all the election talk, because the fixed election date law cannot overrule a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. And since none of the opposition parties would likely buy in to Harper’s four-year plan without conditions, elections would always be just on the other side of a Commons vote.

Horse races as shiny objects

No matter what, the budget usually finds support in one corner of parliament or another, and election speculation is put off for another year—as is much of the reporting about the budget itself. And that’s the annoying part, according to Maclean’s columnist Aaron Wherry.

“You could do weeks of stories about what’s in the budget. It’s insane to think that all that can be covered in a day,” says Wherry, who recently wrote about the declining relevance of the House of Commons. “It should be the start of the coverage, but we all shrug our shoulders and walk away.”

That’s because more incisive reporting is relatively rare in the world of minority government, which is very much a zero-sum game where every story has a winner and loser.

“Most stories are ‘X’ versus ‘Y’. It’s entertaining, but I don’t know what people are supposed to take away from that,” Wherry says. “We don’t spend a lot of time explaining what’s going on.”

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