Graham Steele: Do pre-budget tours make a difference?

Political analyst Graham Steele says the budget is where the government’s real priorities lie exposed on the page.

Budgets are about choices, not wishes, writes Steele

Graham Steele served as finance minister in Darrell Dexter's government. He resigned from cabinet in May 2012. (Shutterstock)

If you want to know what a government is all about, ignore the politicians’ beautiful words and stated intentions.  Hit their "mute” button, and look at their budget.

The budget is where the government’s real priorities lie exposed on the page. 

Diana Whalen will rise in the legislature eight weeks from now, and deliver the first budget of the McNeil government.  We’ll have a better idea then of what they’re all about.

Between now and then, the minister will embark on the traditional pre-budget consultation tour.

Thursday was supposed to be the tour kick-off, and Minister Whalen chose an unusual place to do it—a Sydney high school.

But "the best-laid schemes of mice and finance ministers gang aft agley", as Robbie Burns didn’t quite say.  School was cancelled for yet another snow day, so the students of Sydney Academy have to wait to bend the minister’s ear.

Did you ever wonder if these pre-budget tours make a difference?

Let me start by killing a common myth: A pre-budget tour isn’t about the search for that “eureka!” moment when someone comes up with an idea that nobody’s thought of before, and that will solve all our financial woes.

Sorry, but there are no new finance ideas out there, except for the crazy ideas that nobody’s thought of because—well, because they’re crazy.  Like the guy who asked me for $1 million so he could salvage a vessel he said was worth $200 million, and then he’d split the proceeds with the province. An easy $100 million of new revenue for me, without taxation.  What could possibly go wrong?

A pre-budget tour, at its best, is a genuine effort to take the pulse of the province on the key financial questions: What public services do people want? And where should the money come from to pay for them?  What should we do more of, and what less?

Wishes and misses

The main challenge facing the finance minister is that most of the people she meets will have fairly woolly ideas about provincial finance.

One group, for example, wanted me to allocate all of the tobacco tax revenue to smoking-cessation programs.  On the surface it sounds reasonable.  The problem is that annual tobacco tax revenue is over $200 million, and devoting it all to smoking cessation would have put it ahead of the entire home-care budget, and twice as much as the emergency health services budget. The group had a proposal, but no idea of the dollars involved, so it wasn’t very helpful to me.

There are also interest groups who will use their meeting with the minister to present a wish list.  It’ll be the same wish list they’ve presented for years. There will be no attempt at balance, and no acknowledgement of competing priorities. After enough of these meetings, the finance minister is left holding a sheaf of wish lists, and that’s not much help either.

Budgets are about choices, not wishes.

In fact any pre-budget proposal based on single interests, wishful thinking, or incorrect facts will be of limited value to the finance minister, and unlikely to find its way into a budget.

Tough questions

That’s why a finance minister has a responsibility too, one that goes beyond the number of kilometres on the ministerial car or the number of meetings she holds.

There is an inescapable logic to money questions that clashes with the usual nonsense of politics. If you want to buy something, you have to pay for it.

If you spend more on one thing and your income stays the same, you have to spend less on something else. You can borrow money, but that costs money.  You can’t make major policy changes, and then cross your fingers and hope the finances work out.

The laws of finance—not to mention the laws of arithmetic—pose hard questions, and it’s the finance minister’s job to ask them.

If the finance minister is prepared to ask those hard questions during her tour—politely, but firmly—then the tour will definitely help to shape the budget.

Otherwise, it’s just a photo-op, and we already have enough of those.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.