Why the leak of the Pre-Budget Consultations report doesn’t matter, except to the committee’s researchers

As someone who was involved in the House of Commons’ Finance Committee’s pre-budget consultations for several years, the leak of the committee’s draft recommendations by a, shall we say, opportunistic, Conservative staffer couldn’t help but catch my eye. While reports are focusing on the effect of the leaks on the political parties, let’s not forget the researchers who actually wrote the report.

The whole pre-budget consultations process is pretty intense. In the space of three months or less, the committee, aided by their tireless researchers and a committee clerk, hears from hundreds of witnesses in Ottawa and on the road. Researchers then have to take these hundred of submissions about every conceivable topic (seriously: we heard about every conceivable issue to which a dollar sign could conceivably be attached) and write a big honkin’ report that has to be translated, submitted to the committee for approval, edited and revised to reflect the will of the committee.

Writing the report and attending the meetings was actually a lot of fun, like getting your own personal annual update on the state of the Canadian economy. And I think that the reports did (and do) a fair job of accurately representing Canadians’ main economic concerns, which is what I think the Finance Committee always sets out to do.

But let’s not overstate the importance of the process. Far from being a crucial input into the making of the federal budget as the Globe and Mail’s breathless reporting suggests, the Finance Committee’s pre-budget consultations report is exactly as effective in influencing government policy as any other parliamentary committee report.* Which is: hardly at all.

For starters, the committee’s report is not binding on the government. There’s also the fact that the Finance Department and Finance Minister have been conducting their own pre-budget exercises for years (dating back to the Liberals, I believe). Between this duplication and the current government’s incessant appetite for polls (different in degree, not in kind, from its predecessors), I’d be surprised if the government learned anything new from the committee’s work. I’m also fairly certain that the overall thrust of the budget is not determined by the Finance Committee.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that when there’s a majority government, the government effectively controls the committee, so it’s not like anything embarrassing to the government would get into report anyway.

The report can be useful as a way for MPs to signal to the government what they feel are important issues, and specific recommendations may not be 100% in line with the government’s agenda, but I’d be very surprised if something that the government (read: Prime Minister) of the day really didn’t like would ever get into a pre-budget report. (I should say here that as a non-partisan staffer I was never privy to intra-party discussions. We simply followed the will of the chair and the committee.)

That such a potentially valuable annual exercise doesn’t contribute more to the federal budget is a sad reminder of the growing irrelevance of Parliament, and it’s something that Canadians should be concerned about. I also feel for the researchers who’ve been working 12-hour days for the past month only to see their work trashed by the inexcusable and offensive actions of a political staffer. But as far as any effect on the way that the budget is currently made, the cancellation of this year’s Finance Committee’s pre-budget report will hardly matter at all.

* The Globe article, as the Globe’s Parliament Hill coverage tends to do, focuses exclusively on the horse race aspects of the report. From that perspective, sure, the cancellation of the budget robs parties of the chance to score political points based on the differences between the committee report and the eventual budget. Me, I’m more concerned with more boring stuff, like what’s actually in the budget. Even if you care about the political horse race, based on what I wrote above I don’t see how the report can really tie the Finance Minister’s hands. The Conservatives control their own MPs and could easily dismiss any annoying opposition recommendations.

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