Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Finance minister undermines her message

In September, the battle isn't about the budget numbers. It's about the story, says Graham Steele.
Finance Minister Diana Whalen says the changes will cut department spending by one per cent and reduce civil service hiring over the rest of the 2014-15 fiscal year. (CBC)

On Monday, Finance Minister Diana Whalen delivered the first update on her 2014-15 budget

She wanted to deliver one message, and inadvertently delivered another.

In the budget news cycle, the September update is of small importance. We're still early in the budget year, and there's no new information on some of the big items. The December update, usually delivered a few days before Christmas, is when the true picture starts to show. 

So in September, the battle isn't about the numbers. It's about the story.

In this case, the government's story is that they're "on track." The finance minister would be very happy if everybody remembered just those two words. A news headline containing them would be perfect. Everything else, the government would say, is a detail.

Unfortunately, two details marred the story, and the second was an accident.

The first awkward detail was an unbudgeted $30-million "course correction," that saw the powerful Treasury Board order, in mid-August, a one per cent cut in departmental budgets (with many exceptions) and a slow-down in filling staff vacancies.

Like most political issues, you can see this more than one way. The government says it's doing whatever it takes to meet the original budget target. They're tough. They're resolved. Good story.

The other way to look at it is that they started with the story they wanted — "on track" — and worked backwards from there. Spending was inching upwards, as it does inside a very complicated, $10-billion machine. So the Treasury Board ministers waved a wand to produce "savings" that haven't actually been found yet, and which may never materialize, but which are good enough for purposes of an update. Those wands have been waved before.

Because the McNeil government is still on its honeymoon, they'll get the benefit of the doubt on this one.

The second awkward detail from the budget update wasn't in the documents and, unless I'm very much mistaken, it wasn't planned.

Brief background: At these forecast updates, a technical document is released, plus a news release, plus a statement by the minister. Each of these documents is prepared in advance, and expresses the story the way the government wants it to be expressed. 

Reporters rarely quote verbatim from these documents. They're much more interested in the question-and-answer session that follows the minister's prepared remarks, because the minister goes off-script and is much more likely to say something interesting.

And on Monday, Diana Whalen obliged.

The finance minister was challenged on the relatively minor nature of a $30-million cut in a $10-billion budget. After all, $30 million is a lot of money to you and me, but it's 0.3 per cent of total government spending. A mid-year correction was needed only because the original plan for a differently-targeted one per cent cut hadn't worked. 

To rescue herself, Whalen hinted at a darker future. There are "serious cuts and changes" ahead, she said.

She probably wishes she'd never said those words, because they instantly became a competing narrative to the story she wanted to tell. True to form, at least half the media stories focused on "serious cuts and changes" rather than "on track."

There are a lot of people who depend, in one way or another, on government funding. If you're contemplating "serious cuts and changes" — and every new government contemplates them, until they eventually succumb to the status quo —you don't want everyone arrayed against you. 

After the finance minister's ad-libbed warning, everyone will start planning their campaigns to hold on to what they have. Much of this effort will be behind the scenes. But make no mistake, barricades are now being planned, and they will be mounted. Much government effort will now have to be devoted to soothing frayed nerves.

We won't know the details of the McNeil government's program reforms until the next budget, which is a year and a half into their mandate. We won't know if their reforms are even working until we see audited financial statements in August 2016, three years into their mandate. At that point, all they'll be thinking about is the next election.

My goodness, how time flies when you're in government.

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.