Nova Scotia·Opinion

Want something in the budget? It pays to ask — quickly: Graham Steele

The early budget deadline and the low-key consultation process might cause a citizen to wonder if the finance minister is serious, says Graham Steele.

Deadline to submit budget requests is Monday

Finance Minister Randy Delorey says he wants to hear from the public before an election budget which could happen in early April. (CBC)

Finance Minister Randy Delorey will likely deliver an election budget in early April, and he says he wants to hear from you.

But don't wait too long.

The deadline is Monday.

The early deadline and the low-key consultation process might cause a citizen to wonder if the finance minister is serious.

Is he going through the motions? Is he checking a checkbox? I don't think that would be fair.

Citizens can have an impact on the budget, but they have to be smart about it. And quick.

Election budget

The budget is the most important political event of any year. It's a comprehensive statement of the government's priorities.

A budget strips away the political rhetoric. What gets funded, and where the money comes from, speaks volumes about what a government is all about.

The budget takes on special importance in an election year.

It tells the voters what the government claims to have done, and promises where they'll take us if we re-elect them.

Early preparation

What most people don't realize is just how early the budget is prepared. When I was finance minister, I had a hard time persuading people that the earlier they got to me, the more impact they could have.

Cornering me in the grocery store the day before the budget wasn't going to get them what they wanted.

The budget may be delivered in early April, but the preparations start in the fall. The Treasury and Policy Board (TPB) is the cabinet committee that makes all the big budget decisions.

It has already been meeting steadily to build the budget, and the meeting schedule ramps up through January and February.

All key decisions are locked down by about three weeks before budget day. That's why the window for citizen input is already rapidly closing.

Four channels 

Back on Nov. 24, the finance minister issued a news release inviting public comment.

The news release suggests four channels to make a budget submission:

  • Snail mail to P.O. Box 187, Halifax, B3J 2N3.
  • Tweet to @NSFinance.
  • Email to budget@novascotia.ca.
  • Talk to an MLA.

Nobody sends snail mail any more, and tweeting a budget submission is silly. Most submissions will come in by email.

I want to focus on the fourth option, which is — if it's done right — the most effective.

Stand out from the crowd

When it comes to a budget submission, you want to stand out from the crowd. The best way to do that is to ally yourself with an MLA.

It doesn't have to be an MLA on the government side, although they have more access to ministers.

It doesn't have to be your own MLA, although they're more likely to listen to you. Find an MLA who is sympathetic to your cause, knows how to work the system, and is ready to put their knowledge at your service.

This is about more than handing a document to an MLA and asking them to deliver it to the minister. Your MLA is not a courier. Make them earn their paycheque.

Make a plan together. Who will they meet? When? What will they say? When will they follow up? As I've written before, persistence is the most powerful force in politics.

Government may be more open in an election year

Cynics may say that the government has already made up its mind. They're not really interested in what you have to say. That's partly true.

By the time a government gets to its fourth year, the "fiscal plan" is locked in. There isn't any wiggle room on the big-picture stuff.

But in a $10-billion budget, there is lots of room for small tweaks and changes that don't mean much to the government, but may mean a great deal to an organization, a community or citizens with a common interest.

And in an election year, the government may be a little more amenable than usual to new ideas or new initiatives or new spending. Even if your idea doesn't make it into the budget, it may find its way into one or more election platforms.

So if you don't get what you want this year, you may get it next year.

Do you have something to say to Randy Delorey? Find your champion, play the long game and be persistent.

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.

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