Budget Day on Parliament Hill

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Those following my twitter stream will know that I spent a good chunk of federal budget day, March 22, right in the heart of the action, the Centre Block of Parliament. I was one of about 100 people invited to participate in the ‘lock-up’, an interesting ritual that I had heard about but not experienced. I was already going to Ottawa for the evening to have dinner with the Speaker of the House (and Kingston MP) Peter Milliken, some MPs, and several Kingston industry reps including KEDCO CEO Jeff Garrah. So, extending the trip to attend the lockup was relatively easy though both invitations sadly caused me to have to reschedule a long-scheduled lunch with one of my own undergraduate professors, and to miss an annual Queen’s event that I really like, the annual dinner at Benidickson House for student senators.

I had been warned by a colleague that a lockup is a ‘crashing bore’. Was it? Not at all, even if not razor-sharp, edge-of-seat excitement. Here’s what happens:

Arriving at Centre Block, I went down through the first floor security entrance, lining up with officials and reps from various organizations collectively called “the stakeholders” (there was a separate media lockup which began earlier). I was affiliated for the day with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and sat with its CEO Paul Davidson, V-P Christine Taussig Ford and members of their team.

Once through security (I had to give up a pair of scissors that were in my briefcase and claim them back on the way out), I joined another line to collect a visitor’s badge as my name was ticked off the list of invitees. I signed an undertaking re confidentiality (agreeing to the rules of the lockup—no phones, tweets, blackberries etc). Then, in small groups, we were herded over to the front of the lockup room, where I duly surrendered my blackberry and Ipod.

Once in the lockup, you can’t leave until the budget is tabled. After a quick hello to a few people (including a former colleague from the University of Alberta), I chatted with other stakeholders and with a couple of Ministry of Finance staff. I was in my seat by 2:30 p.m., and just before 3:00, we were welcomed by Ministry of Finance staff, who had been floating around the room, and who handed out copies of the full budget document, a pamphlet with an executive summary, and the Finance Minister’s impending speech, due to start at 4:00.

At that point, the room got silent. The idea of the lockup is that the people in it get the first public look at the budget, which is embargoed (that is, not for public comment or communication) until the instant Minister Flaherty stands up in the house to begin his speech.

During the intervening hour, I pored over the documents with the AUCC team, identifying things that would be good (or not) for universities. Although fully cognizant of the fact that the budget had little chance of passing a confidence motion (and we learned soon thereafter that the Opposition Leaders would not be supporting it), we were pleased to see a number of key agenda items for universities in the document. Highlights include significant base increases to all three granting councils (and an especially good increase for SSHRCC relative to its usual share of such increases), an expansion of the Canada Excellence in Research Chairs program, tax breaks for part-time students, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans program, and various initiatives to support both student mobility outside Canada and bringing international students into Canada. For Queen’s, there are potential additional benefits in the establishment of a Brain Research Fund (we have a great Neuroscience group), and significant multi-year funding for climate-related research. If there was an area of disappointment, it was that there was very little new on the Aboriginal file, a key priority for both Queen’s and the AUCC.

Just before 4:00 pm, the visitor badges were collected and those of us who wanted them were given media room badges. At that point, the deathly hush of a library turned into something out of the old movie “The Front Page” as we all queued up like sprinters ready to exit the lockup the second the doors opened. We streamed out, got our blackberries, and dispersed. I went to the media room where Dr. Davidson and I provided comments on the budget to a number of reporters (the reporters did dozens of interviews so I was not at all surprised when these didn’t show up in print).

After that, Dr. Davidson and I retreated to the Speaker’s Office where the staff kindly allowed us to use a room to participate in the post-Budget AUCC teleconference. Then, I had only a few feet to walk to the dining room and a very nice supper courtesy of the Speaker, who will now have a very busy post-Budget week! Guests included Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, Kedco’s Jeff Garrah and a number of local industry leaders including David Yake from Dupont.  As one may imagine, the Budget and its aftermath were the main topics of conversation.

After that, it was back in the car about 8 o’clock for the drive home.

All in all, it was an interesting experience of an annual event in the political process.

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