Government Relations and the Budget Lock-up: the Art of Voluntary Confinement

Every spring, hundreds of Canadian reporters and influencers go on a pilgrimage to capital cities for budget day. They hit the road at dawn and drive for hours to spend the day locked in a windowless room, without phone nor Internet access, to get a sneak preview of government finances. Sounds like a nightmare? Think again. In Quebec City as in Ottawa, it is THE day of the year. Octane Strategies’ team is a regular participant to this weirdly exciting event.

A Beginners’ Guide to the Budget Lock-Up

We should in fact say lock-ups, since there are a few. Usually, there is a very long one for reporters and shorter ones, for elected officials and stakeholders.

Unless they are invited as experts by a media outlet, stakholders, lobbyists, economists, tax experts and consultants usually attend a stakeholder lock-up. In Quebec, it lasts approximately six hours. In Ottawa, it is typicaly two hours long. Departmental officials are always on site to answer technical questions, and the Finance Minister sometimes drops by.

Participants can usually enter the lock-up whenever they want, but they cannot communicate with the outside world, or leave the room before the Minister of Finance starts his Budget Speech, usually when financial markets close at 16:00.

Rules surrounding budget secrecy are very strict, but there have been major leaks, including one about income trusts, which likely cost Paul Martin’s Liberals some seats in the 2006 election. This year, the Federal Budget Speech was delayed because the House of Commons’ pages started distributing budget documents before the Minister had begun his presentation. Opposition parties complained and the Speaker had to rule on the issue from the bench.

Why go to the Budget Lock-Up?

  • To get media coverage: stakeholders who participate in the lock-up gain an advantage since they can prepare behind closed doors, and hit the media circuit as soon as the embargo is lifted, in person or through a press release. Reporters are on location to gather reactions. It is a maelstrom of improvised media scrums and interviews that lasts about two hours after the Budget is tabled. After that, it is too late to appear in the evening news.
  • To ask pointed questions and gather intelligence: there is no better opportunity to ask detailed questions about tax measures or new programs. The majority of civil servants who attend the lock-up know the budget by heart – in fact they usually drafted the tax measures found in the budget – and are very happy to answer requests on the most obscure minutiae.
  • To network: it is funny to observe how people start talking to each other when they are stuck together in a room for hours, without access to their phone, email or social media. Lobbyists, stakeholders, allies and opponents are all under the same roof. It is a great opportunity to listen, discuss and influence – on the budget of the day or on next steps.
  • To lobby: capital cities are abuzz on budget day. And after the lock-up, people get together, often with a beverage in hand. It is a great opportunity to reconnect with former colleagues, to meet key stakeholders and to chat with elected officials. It is not necessary to register for the lock-up to attend those post-budget receptions.

How to prepare for the lock-up?

The best is to walk in with a list of specific issues to look out for in the budget. Having draft lines, press releases or a backgrounder ready is also useful. When in the lock-up, one only needs to scan the budget for the relevant information and to update the documents so they are ready to distribute as soon as the embargo is lifted.

True surprises are rare. But if the budget contains bombshells, it is very useful to find out about them before everyone else does to make the necessary course corrections. And since there is no Internet access in the lock-up, it is essential to have reference documents handy.

The Minister of Finance traditionally buys new shoes to wear on budget day. Others do not need to do the same. But budget day is a long day, so a good night’s sleep and comfortable footwear is not a bad idea!

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