Canadian democracy has plenty of peculiar rituals but there is perhaps none more unusual than that of the budget lock-up. Each year, on Budget Day, throngs of journalists, researchers, MPPs, and lobbyists voluntarily lock themselves in a room for hours on end, with no connection to the outside world, in order to pore over the various budget documents in advance of their actual release.
The purpose of the lock-up is to allow stakeholders, including opposition critics and the media, to analyze the budget in order to quickly report on it or respond to it. The moment the Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan gets up on his feet in the House to begin to deliver his budget speech is the moment that they unchain the doors and let those “locked in”, out. If you ever wondered how it is that the media are already reporting on everything in the budget before the minister has gotten through the first page of his speech, now you know how it happened.
The origins of the budget lock-up no doubt are linked to the once critical principal of budget secrecy. For years, the idea that all members of a legislature, equally together, would be informed of the budget no later than anyone else, was sacrosanct. Indeed, over the years, there have been plenty of calls for finance ministers to quit when information was leaked ahead of the budget release. Two reasons are traditionally cited for budget secrecy: 1) markets can be affected by what is in the budget and, consequently, nobody should be given and unfair advantage, and; 2) it was viewed as a violation of “privilege” for persons other than members of a legislative body to have access to the budget before them.
These days, however, what was once seen as parliamentary convention may seem quaint and outdated. Much has been written about the fact that budget secrecy seems to have been abandoned in the face of the steady stream of budget tidbits leaked in advance of the big day. But, truth be told, budget secrecy has never been an absolute concept and pre-budget disclosures have become the norm for many years. As well, speaker’s rulings (as well as Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner) have already determined that budget secrecy is not a matter of privilege for members of an assembly or an enforceable convention but are simply a matter of political practice and the administrative responsibilities of the minister.
But, no matter. Clearly, even as a matter of political practice, maintaining some element of budget secrecy is useful in allowing governments to help shape their communications narrative. As well, the importance of maintaining confidentially around issues that can move financial markets (whether it be an actual budget or otherwise) remains critical to ensuring that nobody is able to take undue advantage of inside information.
But for me, the great part about the budget lock-up is the drama and the fun. So, even if I’m simply playing a part in political theatre which may look more important than it is, I’m going to enjoy the pressure cooker of the budget lock-up and the race against the clock to complete your analysis before the 4pm bell so you can be among the first to get your analysis out.
Check back in a few hours for our post lock-up budget analysis.
Jason Grier was Vice President and National Director, Health Policy. He is no longer with H+K.