Budget day in Ottawa an elaborate $500K affair

Internal documents obtained by CBC News show the logistics behind federal budget day include thousands of dollars to pay for "lockups," for French translation, for policing and paramedics, for free lunches for staff and a host of other expenses. The $500,000 bill is a far cry from decades past when the federal spending plan was little more than a speech.

Printing, translating and safeguarding federal budget documents a pricey start to annual spending plans

Hundreds of journalists are locked up for hours on budget day to read the document thoroughly and are not allowed to leave until just before the finance minister begins his speech in the House of Commons. Invoices obtained by CBC News show the cost of lockups and other budget-day activities run close to half a million dollars. (chronicleherald.ca)

Federal budget day began as a simple affair on a Saturday afternoon in 1867, when finance minister John Rose read a modest speech in the House of Commons to set out the government's first-ever spending plan of just $5.3 million.

Almost a century and a half later, budgets have become elaborate productions – with about a half-million taxpayer dollars already spent before Finance Minister Bill Morneau rises in the Commons to set out his own fiscal blueprint on March 22.

Finance minister Marc Lalonde goes over his budget on April 18, 1983, while a TV camera sneaks a look at the budget document. (The Canadian Press)
Finance officials declined to disclose the costs of releasing the 2016 budget. But CBC News has obtained detailed invoices from the 2015 budget release showing at least $461,000 in hospitality, printing, vehicle rentals, translations, policing and many other expenses.

The 2016 budget-release logistics, which are virtually identical to last year, are expected to cost at least as much, with bureaucrats' overtime pushing the bill close to the half-million mark.

The biggest cost is printing, even in this digital age of online publication. Two large printing contracts, together worth $310,000, produced a blizzard of pamphlets, backgrounders, and news releases in addition to the hefty budget book itself.

Translation cost about $47,000. Every publication in 2015 was composed in English, and translation into French took three weeks.

Lockups an expense

Another expense is running the so-called lockups, where select groups – reporters, tax practitioners, legal publishers, parliamentarians, economic commentators, provincial and territorial officials, deputy ministers, even government call-centre workers – get privileged access to budget material up to seven hours before Morneau's 4 p.m. ET speech.

Most sign confidentiality agreements and are sequestered, without cellphones and other devices, so everything stays secret until financial markets close.

Louis St. Laurent, prime minister from 1948 to 1957, insisted his finance ministers type out their budget speeches themselves. (thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)
Lockups cost money: venue rental and AV services ($39,500); buses ($1,695); police and paramedics (about $13,500); and free cold lunches with beverages ($9,640). Those free lunches, by the way, aren't available to journalists, who pay for their food at a canteen.

Office supplies, permits, parking, car rentals and gas, ad agency advice, and a dozen knives (at $1.63 each, to cut open boxes of budget books) are some other items rounding out the bill.

Overtime costs were not provided, but at least 20 Finance Canada officials were given the green light two weeks before the 2015 budget to work whatever extra hours were needed.

In rising to lay before the House a statement of the financial condition of the Dominion, he asked the forbearance of gentlemen on both sides.- Hansard report of Finance Minister John Rose's Dec. 7, 1867, budget speech

Invoices and other records related to the 2015 budget release were obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

There's no reliable way to compare today's budget-release costs to those of previous governments, but clearly things have escalated.

Louis St. Laurent, Canada's prime minister from 1948 to 1957, insisted his finance ministers type out their budget speeches themselves, in a single copy, to ensure there were no budget leaks from a secretary or clerk. Today, several thousand copies of the speech are printed in advance.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before the age of the internet, military cargo planes would transport hundreds of copies of the printed budget to major Canadian cities days before the big event.

RCMP escort

RCMP officers would then escort the shipments to Bank of Canada offices across Canada for eventual release locally. And on budget day itself, the military would fly copies to Washington, London and Paris for reference by Canada's diplomats.

Sir Thomas White, finance minister from 1911 to 1917, is credited as the first to give reporters advance copies of part of his budget speech, under embargo, for release when he stood to speak in the House of Commons. In those trusting days, no lockup was needed. (White, by the way, introduced Canada's first income tax as a "temporary" war measure.)

But the cozy relationship between politicians and journalists broke down long ago — witness the 1983 budget fiasco when a TV cameraman with a zoom lens was able to take images of finance minister Marc Lalonde's draft budget lying open on his desk during a photo-op the day before the budget speech.

Finance minister John Rose delivered Canada's first-ever budget speech on Dec. 7, 1867. It was a decidedly low-key affair. (en.wikipedia.org)
Lalonde resisted pressure to resign, and on budget day appeared to add $200 million to a program's spending that had been exposed by the captured images – allowing him to argue that no leak had occurred because the final figure was different.

If the leak in fact prompted Lalonde's extra spending, then it could be argued that the 1983 budget release was the most expensive ever.

Back on Dec. 7, 1867, finance minister John Rose's number-heavy budget speech was punctuated by a few polite questions from MPs – and agreement to postpone any debate until his financial tables could be printed and distributed.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby