Liberals promising more open pre-budget consultations

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is heading across Canada next week on a six-day pre-budget consultation blitz.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau to hold series of public meetings in 6 cities next week

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau will travel to six cities to get budget advice from Canadians. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is heading off on a six-day cross-country consultation trip to ask Canadians what they want to see in the upcoming federal budget.

The meetings will be a mix of traditional closed-door sessions with stakeholder groups, ranging from manufacturing to cultural organizations, plus a couple of public events in each location where people will get a chance to offer their opinions directly to the federal minister.

The consultations will include, for the first time, a panel discussion in Toronto on key themes that will be in the budget.

"It's important to listen, people need to be part of the process," Dan Lauzon, director of communications for the finance minister, said in an interview with CBC News. "We're not going into any of these cities and hiding."

Lauzon said the Liberals got the clear message during the election campaign that people want a more inclusive government and the pre-budget conversations are going to be part of that.

"The prime minister says the government must be open and engaged. That is the tone he has set," Lauzon said.

Morneau's cross-country trek is called "Growing Our Economy Together." It starts Jan. 11 in Halifax and moves to Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, ending in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 16.

Morneau will be holding the regular private sessions with interest groups where both sides can speak frankly, according to Lauzon. But he's also making public speeches to local business groups and holding town halls with university students in Halifax and Calgary. The government is also trying to use more social media by taking written questions and advice  from Canadians on Facebook.

Morneau will also be part of a four-hour panel discussion on "Innovation, Climate Change and Infrastructure" at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, which will be open to the media and about 100 members of the public.

"That's new, for sure," said Theresa McClenaghan, one of the experts who has been invited to be part of the panel.

McClenaghan's co-chair of the Green Budget Coalition, representing 16 environmental groups that provide annual budget advice to the minister.

Time is short

The Liberals say their more open approach is different from the previous Conservative government, but McClenaghan says it's probably too early to tell if that's really the case. She thinks the real proof is what the government actually does with the advice.

The Liberals may also be taking this approach because they have to. Parliamentary committees that normally hear from interest groups aren't set up yet, and with a budget expected by early spring, time is short.

The Conservative government held most of its pre-budget consultations behind closed doors. But former finance minister Jim Flaherty would also typically hold at least one public town hall meeting in his own riding as he prepared the budget.

Despite the Conservative government's record on the environment, McClenaghan says her group always had "very good access" to finance department officials and government ministers every year.

She says their suggestions would often show up in the budget, like the Conservative budget measures to roll back fossil fuel subsides or spend more money on national parks. But she adds the former government rarely took their advice on the climate change file.

Despite that access, those private budget talks had their limitations.

"Closed-door meetings are not accountable," said McClenaghan, adding that getting advice in public creates a different dynamic for a government that can be more easily called to account if it doesn't listen.

"I think every time there is additional transparency it increases accountability."