Graham Steele: How it feels to be finance minister on budget day

CBC political analyst Graham Steele reflects on what budget day feels like for the person in the spotlight — the finance minister.

A behind-the-scenes look at what budget day feels like for the person in the spotlight

There aren't many people who get to rise in the legislature and deliver a budget speech. From 2009 to 2012, I did it four times.

Strangely, the speech is a very minor part of the whole budget effort.

As you would expect, hammering out a $9.5 billion budget takes many months and is the combined effort of hundreds of people. The meetings start in September and grow longer and more frequent into January, February and early March.

Contrary to popular belief, it's not the finance minister who makes all the key decisions. That's the job of a five-member cabinet committee, the Treasury Board. The finance minister is always on the Treasury Board and usually chairs it, but is still just one voice.

The budget is pretty much done about three weeks before budget day. There's room for little tweaks, but nothing major. There are too many moving parts and interconnections — not to mention getting the documents finalized, proofed and printed — to allow for any significant last minute changes.

Then there are the shoes. 

There's a weird tradition in Canada that a finance minister wears new shoes on budget day. Nobody can agree on who started it but lots of people know about it. In the run-up to a budget, I'd get asked on the street and in the grocery store whether I'd bought my new shoes yet.

It's hard to be original. The new shoes tradition has been around for 40 years and there are 14 annual budgets in Canada. Every gimmick has been done.

I re-polished my shoes in 2009 when we buffed up the previously introduced Progressive Conservative budget and I bought children's shoes in 2010 when we took the HST off children's shoes and clothing.

More originally, I showed a picture of new shoes on a Blackberry Playbook just before the Playbook came out in 2011. It was meant to showcase a big local employer. For my last budget, in 2012, I bought shoes at a local store to underline a tax break for small business.

Into the lock up

Budget day itself starts very low key for the finance minister and that's because of another tradition.

Journalists, opposition members and interest groups can get an advance look at the budget in the morning. The price of admission is that they have to surrender their cellphones and swear they won't communicate with anybody outside.

This "lock up" lasts until the budget speech starts in mid-afternoon. For the finance minister, it's blessed peace.

The real budget day action starts about half an hour before the speech, when the minister enters the journalists' lock-up for a news conference. It's the first hint of the kind of press the budget will get.

Then it's across the hall, to the legislative chamber, for the speech.

Frankly, the budget speech is anti-climactic, after all those months of preparation.

For one thing, the minister reads the speech, which is boring for listeners who have the document in front of them.

Hardly anyone outside the chamber is paying attention. Once the journalists are released from the lock up, they're filing stories. They've already read the speech; they don't need to listen to it too.

When you get right down to it, the budget speech is a show and not a very entertaining one. The applause and ovations are scripted. All that matters are the numbers. That's why my budget speeches got shorter the longer I held the job.

But still: there will always be something special about the first time you stand to deliver a budget. All eyes in the chamber are on you. The budget begins with specific, formal words, which underline the history and solemnity of the occasion. 

This is Her Majesty's government tabling the spending estimates for the year to a responsible, democratic assembly. This matters.

To Diana Whalen, who delivers her first budget on Thursday: I wish you very well.

I know how you feel.

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.