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Russell Wangersky: Pre-budget placation

['Around 40 people showed up for pre-budget consultations in Gander. Pictured are some attendees deliberating over the discussion topics.']
Around 40 people showed up for a pre-budget consultations in Gander Feb 23, 2017.

 

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

In New Brunswick, the pre-budget consultations are already over and done with. In Prince Edward Island, the last two public meetings are today and Thursday, in Charlottetown and Montague, respectively.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, they’ll run to the end of January.

In Nova Scotia, there’s a handy graphic showing how they’re part of the annual budget cycle, just before the handy “Build A Budget” section. (I’m not going to reproduce the graphic, but for some reason, it made me think of a dead cartoon caterpillar, with a series of blue circular feet stuck up in the air.)

For all four Atlantic provinces, there are websites and email addresses for submitting your suggestions, your deep thoughts or just plain outright rants, and always, the promise that your suggestions will be deeply and thoroughly considered.

Each province has its own news release on that front, all of them remarkably similar. Here’s the one from New Brunswick’s finance minister, but you can really just insert the name of any province in that space, and you’ll get the idea.

“With the engagement of New Brunswickers your government has developed a balanced and comprehensive plan to address our fiscal challenges,” said Finance Minister Cathy Rogers. “We will keep listening on the important issues facing our province today and in the future. I encourage New Brunswickers to read the report and to share their ideas either by attending one of the upcoming public sessions or by submitting their feedback directly online or by mail.”

But truthfully, it’s much more of a public relations effort than anything else.

Finance ministers and their staffs gear up for the annual road shows, new web pages are built or old ones are dusted off, and after a few nights of “listening to the citizens, the people who really matter,” the whole thing goes back into the storage locker until next year. At least when the travelling carnival comes to a nearby parking lot, the rides are more enjoyable that an hour and a half on a hard plastic chair in an echoing hall.

The truth is that it’s sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall on the 20th of December: you can ask the old guy for anything under the sun you might want, but unless it’s already hidden in your parents’ bedroom closet, it’s not going to be under the budgetary equivalent of the Christmas tree.

It’s important for governments to listen, the mantra goes.

But there’s a difference between listening and hearing.

Often, the consultation work starts well after budget work is underway. Government departments have made their detailed budget submissions, have heard back from their respective finance departments, and are fine-tuning spending priorities before the public provides its pearls of wisdom.

In other words, if you go in to suggest a radical change in direction in the way the budget-car is being built, you’re faced with the cold hard fact that the entire vehicle is only sitting there waiting for its final trip to the detailing garage.

Not only that, but there’s also the problem of how the various governments prime the pump. Often, the pre-budget consultation starts by asking you to read the government’s presentation on the fiscal direction it’s already decided to take. If you go to the public meeting, it’s all in the presentation read to you at the start. Then, it asks questions like “Should we cut faster? Slower?” The decision to head north or south was made long before.

The direction is already set; you are being offered the chance to move the deck chairs.

But to move them, of course, in a valuable, consultative, collaborative way, recognizing the importance of the voice of the electorate.

Or something like that.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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