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How Budget Day Changed When Media Picked the Attendees

in Analysis/Featured/Journalism by

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to the way government operates. Many of these are responses to crisis, but in some cases those responses have triggered innovative new ways of doing the work of governance—innovations that come with both benefits and trade-offs.

One interesting example of this was on display on provincial Budget Day 2020. For the first time, it was media agencies—not the provincial government—who determined which stakeholders got first glimpse at the budget.

How Budget Day Traditionally Works

Normally, government invites a host of reporters as well as stakeholders from the social, labour and business sectors of the province, to attend Budget Day “lock-ups” hosted by the Department of Finance. The way these function is that invitees are provided an advance look at the provincial budget (and a brief Q&A with officials), several hours before it’s publicly presented in the House of Assembly.

Once they’ve received a copy, they are not permitted to leave the room or to communicate with the outside world. But it means they can analyze the budget and have prepare responses (news stories for the journalists, media statements for stakeholders) in advance of the budget’s public release. Bureaucrats and ministers are brought in to the lock-ups, and attendees can ask questions around parts of the budget that interest or concern them.

In extending invitations to the lock-up, government divides non-media personnel into three groups: “Social,” “Labour,” and “Business.” “Labour” stakeholders include unions and workers’ organizations (NAPE, CUPE, NL Federation of Labour, etc). “Social” stakeholders include groups like Municipalities NL, the Canadian Federation of Students or the St. John’s Status of Women Council. “Business” stakeholders would be groups like the Employers’ Council, the NL Oil and Gas Industries Association, or the St. John’s Board of Trade.

For Budget 2017, there was an unusual addition to the lock-ups: an invite specifically for “Bankers,” which included nine of the major banking organizations (TD Securities, CIBC World Markets Inc., Desjardins Securities Inc., etc). This has not occurred before or since.

Other departments sometimes organize Budget Day lock-ups as well. For instance, there is usually one organized by the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Training for educator groups within the province.

The stakeholder attendees do not get to actually influence or shape the budget—it’s already written—but being invited is a symbolic nod to the important role those groups play in the province. It also provides a useful opportunity for those groups to ask direct questions about government priorities and intentions.

Sometimes the attendees are able to highlight areas where greater clarification about a proposal or spending project is needed, or to flag areas where certain considerations have been omitted. A strong response to certain proposals—either favourable or hostile—might also influence policy going forward, or pressure government to rethink portions of the budget.

Stakeholders’ scrutiny filters the budget through a variety of lenses. The omission of representatives from particular sectors means that the impact of the budget on people they represent is more likely to be omitted or less prominent in public dialogue.

The presence of social, labour, and business stakeholders on budget day provides them a vital opportunity to share their analysis with media. Media coverage of the budget relies on journalists (who attend their own separate lock-up) being able to obtain quick and informed analyses from these stakeholders. This helps assess the budget’s impact on the province as a whole—and balances out partisan messaging.

Changes in 2020

This year, due to social distancing measures, the budget day ‘lock-up’ process was conducted differently. Instead of government selecting and inviting a range of stakeholders from the community, each media agency was asked to submit the names of up to eight individuals or organizations to be invited to the ‘lock-up’ on budget day.

In other words, it was media, not government, who determined this year’s “stakeholders.”

(Groups that were traditionally invited, but not requested by media this year, were given the opportunity to participate in a WebEx online question and answer with Finance Department officials later in the afternoon, after the budget was released.)

The Independent analyzed data on budget lock-up processes (organized by the Finance Department) from 2015 onward, obtained through an Access to Information request. We looked at how budget day lock-up processes have changed during that time period—and how this year’s altered process affected the stakeholder distribution on budget day.

The results were interesting. This year, the budget lock-up included Indigenous representation for the first time. First Light NL was one of the fifteen organizations invited to attend. They were invited by the Telegram.

The Independent requested the attendance of five other Indigenous governments (Nunatsiuvut Government, Innu Nation, Nunatukavut Community Council, Qalipu First Nation Band, and Miapukwek/Conne River), but provincial government declined to invite those groups. The Independent was informed that “The various other government/council groups you’ve identified (Nunatsiavut, Innu, Nunatukavut, Qalipu) are not normally part of the Budget Day lock-ins. Similar to municipal governments and councils, they are engaged by departments and would have to travel from all over the province—not something that can be organized on short notice unfortunately.”

There were three other first-time attendees at the event. The Social Justice Cooperative of NL was invited for the first time (invited by the Independent), and the Coalition for a Green New Deal also attended (invited by the Telegram). Memorial University, which normally attends a lock-up organized by the Department of Advanced Education and Skills (AESL), also attended through an invitation by NTV.

The choice of invites by media organizations offers an interesting perspective into the priorities of media agencies in the province. The Independent and the Telegram both concentrated their invitations on Indigenous and social/labour stakeholders. A balance of social, labour and business stakeholders were invited by CBC (five business, three labour, one social), VOCM (two business, three labour, two social) and NTV (three business, four labour, one social). Both the Canadian Press and AllNewfoundlandLabrador invited exclusively business stakeholders. Some media agencies (Canadian Press, NTV) also requested specific politicians, but they were not invited by government as their role was considered different from other stakeholders.

Government also made three additions of their own to invite groups no media agency requested: Alliance for the Control of Tobacco (given the changes to tobacco and vape taxation in the budget), Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador, and Mayor Danny Breen from the City of St. John’s. Only Hospitality NL attended; the others declined. It is interesting that Mayor Danny Breen was invited, as government cited the different engagement process for municipalities as justification for not inviting Indigenous government representatives to attend.

There was one noteworthy omission from the list. The St. John’s Status of Women Council has been invited to the budget day lock-up annually, and their presence was clearly requested by media agencies. According to Department of Finance, they were invited but the invitation was sent to an incorrect address. The error, and the Council’s subsequent absence on budget day, is noteworthy in light of the Furey government’s decision to eliminate Status of Women as a stand-alone provincial ministry a month earlier.

While stakeholder attendance at the lock-up was smaller than in previous years, representation changed significantly when media shaped the invite list. Indigenous organizations were represented for the first time, as well as social stakeholder organizations that have been overtly critical of oil and gas dependency. Unfortunately there was no representation from any of the many organizations representing the province’s women—despite media requests.

Photo by Alex Spracklin.

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