Why government budgets are more about style over substance

Published on
April 11, 2024
Written by
Andrew Perez
Read time
5 min

Guest Opinion

Andrew Perez

The federal budget could be said to be the Super Bowl of Canadian politics.  

Like football fans eagerly awaiting the Super Bowl, the political class – staffers,elected officials, public servants, lobbyists and media – look forward to the federal budget with anticipation every year.  

Budget day is a star-studded event with all the key players assuming different roles. The Minister of Finance is the focal point of the day, delivering a lengthy budget speech in the House of Commons before government and opposition MPs. Tradition even holds that the Minister wear new shoes on budget day.

In spite of the pomp and circumstance surrounding it, there is still a certain mystery and intrigue on budget day. Strictly monitored “budget lockups” grant journalists, lobbyists and industry professionals exclusive access to comb through the budget document before it’s delivered by the Minister of Finance later that day.

In the meantime, no media outlet can report on what’s in the budget until the Minister begins speaking on the floor of the Commons at 4:00 p.m. For government affairs professionals, the remainder of budget day is spent monitoring the hundreds and hundreds of stakeholder, industry and government reactions. For the truly ambitious, hours may be spent scouring through the budget document itself.

Yet despite its obvious importance, the budget – and the process surrounding it – is a commonly misunderstood aspect of Canadian democracy.  

In simplest terms, the budget outlines the government’s fiscal, social and economic policies and priorities. It’s generally tabled in Parliament early each year:in February or March in advance of the fiscal year, which begins April 1. In a post-pandemic era, we have increasingly seen budgets released as late as possible, with the earliest financial plan coming out in late March in 2023. 

The Department of Finance oversees the annual budget process from start to finish. The process kicks off when the Minister of Finance sends a letter to cabinet colleagues soliciting proposals for funding.The letter often maps out key budget themes with economic considerations front-and-centre.

There is a common misperception in Canada that the budget is the primary instrument for authorizing government spending; in reality, passing the budget through Parliament is merely the first step in a long process of scrutiny that must be completed before funds can be earmarked for their intended purpose. 

In other words, the inclusion of a spending commitment in the budget doesn’t mean it will materialize. That’s because above all, the federal budget amounts to a financial plan – it doesn’t in itself authorize the spending of government money.  

It’s the government’s main estimates that include the detailed breakdown of spending initiatives, and most importantly, the authorization for the government to allocate funds across those plans. Even after the main estimates are approved in Parliament, further reviews and approvals must be completed before the funds are made available.  

As a result of this common misunderstanding, stakeholders often wrongly assume funds will flow to their initiatives simply because the budget passed a vote in Parliament. This invariably leads to disappointment from provinces,municipalities, industries, organizations and even individuals when promised budget measures aren’t implemented on schedule, or at all. 

It’s also important to underline that receiving funding through the budget typically doesn’t constitute policy or program authority in itself. Rather, a Memorandum to Cabinet or a Treasury Board Submission is required to access funding. These steps can take place before the budget is announced in the case of major priorities and commitments the government wants to expedite. But more often, this process takes place after the budget. 

Budget announcements that require legislative change are addressed through one or more Budget Implementation Acts, tabled in the months following.

It’s critical that government affairs professionals don’t conflate the public relations exercise that is the budget speech and government narrative with the protracted budget cycle involving the main estimates.  

Government affairs professionals can offer better advice and guidance to organizations or interests by truly understanding the intricacies of the budget cycle, and how that cycle impacts whether government funding commitments see the light of day. 

The budget itself represents but one step on the journey toward new program spending with few guarantees. Effective government affairs practitioners must understand this reality.  

Andrew Perez is an experienced communicator and public affairs strategist. He’s worked across the private, public and non-profit sectors advising business leaders and elected officials on their interactions with government and the media.

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