Published on Apr. 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
There was a time, within living memory, when budget secrecy was a big deal, a very big deal. A budget leak could cause a crisis for government and lead to the dismissal or resignation of the minister responsible.
In Britain in 1947, for example, the chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Dalton, paused to say a few words to a journalist as he was walking into the Commons to deliver his budget speech. As it turned out, a procedural issue delayed the speech for a bit, and Dalton’s few words were on the newsstands before he had finished speaking. He had to resign.
In Canada, a budget leak has never brought down a federal finance minister, but it has come close a couple times – in 1983 when Marc Lalonde was Pierre Trudeau’s finance minister and in 1989 when Michael Wilson was finance minister in Brian Mulroney’s government. (Although the opposition howled, Lalonde and Wilson kept their jobs; in the 1989 incident, the RCMP actually charged the reporter who broadcast the leak.)
There’s no such thing as a budget leak anymore. What we have is a cynical system of selective disclosure and message control. Governments release details of tax or spending changes, often well in advance of budget day. The aim is twofold: to whet the appetite of the media to ensure maximum publicity when the budget finally comes down; and to give the government an opportunity to beat a retreat if public’s reaction is negative.
Was anyone in Ontario really surprised when Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government finally confirmed in its budget last week that it would sell off a chunk of Hydro One and allow the sale of beer in supermarkets? That “news” had been in the papers and beaten to death on talk shows for weeks.
And how about the federal budget that also came down last week – the one that seems destined to be known as “Stephen Harper’s granddaughter’s budget?” The Conservatives had wrung every drop of partisan advantage out of that dreary document long, long before Finance Minister Joe Oliver donned his New Balance running shoes and headed to the chamber.
Yes, there will be a minuscule surplus. Yes, it will be achieved by dipping into reserves. Yes, there will be income-splitting that will benefit more affluent families. Ditto, the doubling of the contribution limit for tax free savings accounts. Yes, there will be enhanced child care benefit cheques in Canadians’ mailboxes in July. All this was known far in advance, as were the facts that it would take some creative bookkeeping and time-lapse accounting to produce the balanced budget. (Not that this discouraged the Toronto Star from declaring on its front page the next day: “Tory budget paves streets with gold.” Oh, do tell.)
The only real “news” – in the traditional journalistic meaning of the word – came from Finance Minister Oliver who either strayed from the Tory party message or suffered an inadvertent fit of candor when he was asked by the CBC’s Amanda Lang whether the doubling of the TFSA limit would not saddle future governments with a revenue shortfall in the billions. To which Oliver replied: “I heard that by 2080 we may have a problem. Well, why don’t we leave that to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s granddaughter to solve that problem.”
When I heard that, I sort of expected a bolt of lightning from the Prime Minister’s Office to strike Oliver down. But it didn’t happen. He was exiled from Question Period for a couple of days while Harper did damage control, trying to explain that his government isn’t really trying to win re-election in 2015 by spending money it doesn’t have and by piling up debt to burden future generations.
Expect to hear more about Stephen Harper’s hypothetical granddaughter as the election unfolds. The gaffe affords the opposition a small edge, a tiny opening, as they battle a Conservative government that has mastered the art or science of message control.