William Watson: Trying to digest 159 ways to improve a country
I spent seven hours Wednesday confined with several hundred other columnists, reporters, financial analysts, policy wonks, cameramen, video editors, sound engineers and so on at the federal government’s annual budget lock-up.
You line up at 9:30 a.m. in the Ottawa Convention Centre, show ID to confirm your registration, surrender your cellphone and sign an agreement not to—well, I don’t exactly know what I agreed not to do since I didn’t read what I was signing but I presume it was not to disclose any of the budget’s contents until the minister of finance rose in the House of Commons, which he did later than scheduled this year because of Tory protests about new parliamentary procedures. As we twiddled our thumbs and gossiped for the unexpected extra half hour, some of us wondered whether Stockholm Syndrome would set in: The longer we were locked up the more we’d like the budget (not what the Tories would have wanted).
After they let you into the large convention hall and you find your group’s spot in the maybe 30 rows of tables—I was with the National Post/Ottawa Citizen delegation—you pick up a hard copy of the budget and copy an e-version to your computer with the USB key your group is given. Then, heads bowed liked students writing an exam—except much more tightly crowded—you start reading.
I don’t know how quickly the average blog reader reads, but this year’s budget is 278 pages long and in hard copy the print is too tiny for my aged eyes. A whole book is not something I can read in three or four hours so I soon switched to reading from my computer screen, where the font can be as large as I need.
Like everyone else in our group, I started out reading word for word and ended up skimming. Our group might have done better to assign different parts to different people. At our first huddle, about an hour in, we all had strong opinions about the first 50 pages. But we’re pretty laissez-faire at the National Post and in the end, despite a basically decentralized approach, our pieces ended up providing a reasonably comprehensive overview of the budget.
Our group leader asked that our respective columns and reports not all come in at four o’clock, since he had to check and package them and get them all out. Pretty early in my reading I came across the following quote and knew I had my subject: “The Government of Canada’s vast array of innovation programs makes it difficult for businesses to find and secure the support they need.”
In other words, an “innovation budget” addresses the crying need that, that… wait for it…we have too many innovation programs already. Self-recognition of excess is good, especially for a government, but the goal of the budget’s new Innovation Plan is not to trim and save but to be, if anything, even more ambitious than the many governments before it that have also addressed innovation. Having been writing about industrial policy since doing a primer on it for the long-defunct Ontario Economic Council in the early 1980s, I knew I had my subject. Whether I did it justice you can judge for yourself here.
Finishing up around 2:45 p.m., I had ample time to reflect on the process, which, when you come down to it, is pretty much crazy. This supposedly was a do-nothing budget. Yet if you go through each of the chapter summary tables, you find that it includes 159 separate line-items, that is, 159 separate programs that are getting a boost or (much more rarely) a cut in their budget. For every one of them there’s at least a short explanation, plus for many, including the innovation initiative, a long and this year more than usually bloviating explanation Example: “Innovation is, simply put, the understanding that better is always possible.” No it isn’t! Personally, I do understand that better is at least usually possible. “Always” possible? I don’t think so.
But even that optimistic philosophy does not make me an innovator. Being an innovator means actually bringing better into reality. The government thinks Canadians don’t do that often enough and for some reason believes it’s just the agency to coax more “imagined better” out of them.
There’s really no way without spending several days reading and thinking about the budget book to get a complete understanding of what it’s about. To have even reasonably informed people try to grasp it in five or six hours is more or less impossible—especially when they don’t have Internet access. Yes, children, this is the way we always wrote, before the Internet gave us instant fact-checking.
Is a better way possible? The government could do away with the lock-up and let the whole country start reading as soon as the minister started speaking. That might give it too much control over the messaging, however. This way at least there are a couple of hundred people who have had a look at the summary tables, which usually give a truer rendition of what’s going on than the government’s spin-doctors might like.
Is an avalanche of 159 policy changes dumped on the country all at once a good way for the government to operate? The prospect of a budget does concentrate the government’s mind. In theory, the idea is to say how much money will be raised and spent and, in both cases, how, during the coming year. If you’re going to do an annual budget, a couple of months of intense decision-making in which every department’s wish list battles it out with every other’s is probably inevitable. And so is a day on which you tell the contending departments who won.
And, you never know, having that many economists out of commission for a working day might even boost the GDP.
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