They really want to hear their opinion on the budget

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 19: Well, isn’t this nice? The government really really wants to know what we think should be in the federal budget. In fact, they can’t stop talking about all the consultations they’re holding in which we totally agree with them.

Last Tuesday they told me “Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty will be available to the media prior to holding pre-budget consultations on Wednesday... at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce… A photo opportunity will follow.”

By the way, is it just me or didn’t politicians use to try to arrange photo ops while pretending they were something else? Now they brazenly offer four or five a day without even a flimsy face-saving pretence that they’re saying something important, we’re covering it, and it just happens to result in a flattering published photo of the politician. And don’t get me started on the ones where the “photo op” is all you get: You may gaze upon the king but do not presume to intrude upon his contemplations.

No, my topic here is the barrage of fake budget consultation press releases. Another the same day said: “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Pre Budget Consultations at Roundtable in Vancouver” and in that one, while claiming to solicit your opinion Flaherty not only admits his mind is already made up, he blurts out that in his version you will end up having said he was right. “Budget 2012 will maintain our focus on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” said Minister Flaherty. “Today and in coming weeks, I want to hear from Canadians on how we can advance the next phase of our Economic Action Plan to continue to deliver results on these priorities.”

On Wednesday the 11th it was “Minister of Finance to Host Pre-Budget Town Hall in Whitby, Ontario” on Thursday and “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Pre-Budget Consultations at Roundtable in Calgary”. On Friday, “Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister of Heath will taking part in pre-budget roundtable discussions in Nunavut. Media are invited for a brief question and answer session and photo opportunity.”

On Monday she emerged to recite “Our Government remains focused on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” which you’ll note parrots Flaherty word-for-word, almost exactly as though some junior staffer had cut and pasted the release. Still, by all means show up; you’ll make a useful prop. And if Iqaluit sounds too cold “the Harper Government has also launched online pre-Budget consultations.” Either way, you support their jobs and growth agenda. I assure you.

It doesn’t matter whether you actually say their overspending is killing the economy, or they’re heartlessly gutting vital public services. Modern budgets are so vast, complicated and tangled up that this year’s is already well under way within the bowels of the Finance Department and no great wind from our mouths can blow it off course.

I don’t like the fact that government is now so huge and unwieldy that public servants largely run the country and Parliament can’t do any more about it than ministers. But I really hate ministers fanning out to pretend it’s not so, cupping their hands to their ears exactly as though they were listening to us, then announcing that, gosh, we said exactly what they were already thinking.

This Monday “The Honourable Alice Wong, Minister of State (Seniors), will host a round table with stakeholders to discuss the economic and social priorities in advance of Budget 2012 and beyond, as well as local or regional challenges” on Tuesday and “Minister Wong will be available for a photo op…” It’s so bad the blasted “photo op” is the only honest thing in the whole release.

Two days later, déjà vu. “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Multi-Site Pre-Budget Consultations via Video Conference” with “business, academic and sectoral leaders in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.” And guess what? “Budget 2012 will maintain our focus on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” said Minister Flaherty. Which you’ll note is lifted verbatim from his own release eight days earlier. As was the next sentence.

I suppose it’s not a very well kept secret that people don’t actually say the things press releases say they say. But are we really meant to believe, even in this age of relentless messaging, that the finance minister spews talking points verbatim? Or does cutting and pasting this crudely mean you’re not even trying to hide your contempt for us?

Heck, why even bother with the photo ops? Just hand out the same picture over and over to accompany the press release boilerplate, monotonously fake consultations and doctored audio of us all going “jobs and growth the priorities… continue to deliver results… returning to balance in the medium term”.

Oh yeah, and thanks for listening. Thanks a lot.

UncategorizedJohn Robson