Thursday is Budget Day in Ottawa. It’s the day that the finance minister stands up inside the House of Commons and tells Canadians all the goodies that they can look forward to in the coming year: tax breaks, new spending, a tighter control over the deficit (or, even better, no deficit at all).
This happens just after 4pm. That’s because that’s when the markets close in Canada. Because of how dramatic an effect changes in tax policy and government spending or other government financial policies can have on business here, and how much people can profit from knowing these things before the general population, the release of budget details is strictly controlled. Anyone, even a minister, caught leaking information ahead of time is subject to serious penalties. (This doesn’t include hints that are publicly laid by the finance minister in the weeks ahead of a budget, to soften the ground a bit for the announcement.)
It’s partly for this same reason that the media are given access to the budget hours before everyone else. If they were given the hundreds of pages live at 4pm, there would be chaos as reporters and opposition politicians speed-read, potentially getting something important wrong and sending incorrect information out to the public. We saw the dangers of this last year with the Obamacare ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court, which wasn’t subject to a lockup.
That said, this isn’t just any embargo. There’s no communication outside the lockup. None. Not even the assignment editors or news directors know what’s in the budget until after the lockup ends at 4pm (the tradition is the lockup ends when the finance minister stands in the House to begin the budget speech).
I’ve always been curious what it’s like in one of these things. Thanks to my employer at The Gazette, I was given a chance to see it when the Quebec government presented its budget last November.
The week before, the city editor asked me if I wanted to go, saying she wanted a copy editor there so that stories could be edited inside the lockup and posted online immediately instead of being sent to an overwhelmed and underinformed Montreal desk at 4pm and posted one by one. I was given a laptop, a cellphone and booked a train ticket (business class! They served me booze and a meal!) and a hotel for two nights. It was the first time I’ve ever travelled on the company dime, and it was way cool.
Anyway, here’s what it was like inside that lockup.
I was part of a team that included Gazette Quebec City bureau chief Kevin Dougherty, political analyst Philip Authier, transportation reporter Andy Riga, business reporter and tax specialist Paul Delean, business-turned-city reporter Lynn Moore and political columnist Don Macpherson. That’s actually a small group compared to the dozens of journalists from La Presse and the tables of Le Devoir, Quebecor Media and others. We arrived by train on Monday night, had breakfast together on Tuesday and walked down to the Centre des congrès du Québec to join the lockup for around 9am. It’s not that journalists have to get there that early (people are coming in throughout the day – they just can’t leave once they’re inside). But the earlier you get there, the more you can read and the better informed you are about the budget.
The lineup once you get in is pretty long, filled with journalists from all sorts of media, and many casual greetings take place between journalists who normally don’t see each other very often because they’re based in other cities (particularly Montreal).
Wireless devices are supposed to be checked in before journalists enter the lockup. Cellphones aren’t permitted inside for obvious reasons. But technology has meant a relaxing of this rule for laptops. Just about all of them nowadays have Wi-Fi capabilities built-in, and removing wireless transmitters isn’t really practical. So at the inspection stage, it’s sufficient to deactivate the laptop’s Wi-Fi to pass through. (They have other methods to prevent surreptitious wireless transmission, which I’ll get to later.)
Next up is the sign-in, and the placing of cellphones, wireless data sticks and other devices in plastic bags, where they will be kept until the lockup is over. It’s similar to a coat check, with a ticket given to the journalist that can be exchanged for the devices later. Anything that transmits, even things like wireless Bluetooth mice, were to be handed over here.
Welcome to the 21st century. For the past few years, the budget has also been made available via USB key. This is useful for searching, copying charts or referring to documents after the fact instead of having to lug that huge book around all over the place. Most journalists will take a USB key and a physical book, and use whichever medium is more convenient for the task at hand.
Lots of reading material here, all available in English and French. The thickest book is the budget itself, at 484 pages (you can download it here as a PDF if you want). But there’s also a copy of the speech the finance minister will give in the legislature, a thin at-a-glance guide to the budget (highlighting all the things the government wants to highlight), and other highlight documents the government sees fit to include.
By this point we’ve long passed the point of no return. Even though we haven’t entered the lockup room yet, no way we’re being let out once we get our hands on this. In addition to grabbing copies of the budget on both media, we also grab copies in French and English, just in case there’s information in one that’s not perfectly reflected in the other. (The only real difference we noticed is in the size of a slogan on the cover.)
Budget documents in hand, it’s time to head into the lockup room and check out the goodies.
At first, we start reading, getting the big-picture items. We learn quickly that the budget is actually missing a lot of stuff – about education, mining royalties, and most other things the new Parti Québécois wants to do to distinguish itself from the previous Liberal government. As we expected, the budget showed that the PQ just didn’t have the money for a bunch of stuff it wanted to do (like boosting Télé-Québec so it could create a news department, one thing I was personally looking for).
As boring as a balanced budget can be, there were some cool things. The increased taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, in particular, were going to resonate with voters, especially because they took effect within hours of the budget being delivered. There were also deep cuts at Hydro-Québec, new tax credits and other things that were worth reporting on. An hour after starting, The Gazette’s team huddled to distribute assignments. Riga took on the sin tax hikes (which I heard as “syntax” at first, leading to some confusion on my part) as well as transportation/infrastructure issues and stuff affecting families, Moore took Hydro-Québec and natural resources, Delean looked at tax issues and biotech, while Dougherty had the main story, Authier a political analysis and Macpherson a column. My job was to edit stories as they were filed, put together a highlights package (whose posting online was priority No. 1 once the lockup was lifted) and make up or steal some visuals.
Other reporters in Montreal would work on other stories in the evening, those that needed more analysis and quotes from people not in the lockup. And coverage would continue in the days ahead.
In the middle of the hall are long tables with power bars underneath for the print and online journalists. TV and radio were setup along the sides of the room since they each have equipment they needed to bring with them. At the front was a long table to be used for press conferences, in front of a slightly raised platform where TV crews could set up their cameras.
Broadcast media tended to split its talent between those outside the lockup, who could handle broadcasting before the lockup ends (or if there’s technical problems transmitting from the lockup room), and those inside who could deliver information live. CTV had Mutsumi Takahashi in the lockup (she was bummed because she was missing a concert by The Who that night at the Bell Centre). CBC radio, which normally has a local Montreal afternoon show and a separate one for the rest of Quebec from Quebec City, went with a province-wide special that had Quebec City host Jacquie Czernin in the Quebec City studio and Montreal host Sue Smith inside the lockup.
Patrolling the room were agents with big clunky devices designed to detect wireless transmissions. If one stopped by your table and looked at his thing for a while, it was time to get nervous. I’m told that various other technological means were put in place to block such wireless signals anyway, but they don’t want to take any chances (and neither did I by testing it).
Lunch at these things is catered and set up as a buffet (and paid for by the media outlets, so no literal free lunch here). It’s at this point that we start getting interest groups and other non-journalists joining the lockup. People like FEUQ’s Martine Desjardins will be the subject of interviews by journalists in the early afternoon.
Around 1pm, the finance minister arrives, beginning a procession of press conferences where the government and opposition parties comment on the budget. Reporters ask questions, collect quotes/audio/video, and compile them to be transmitted. Because the opposition parties also get to read the budget early, they can say right away that they’re going to vote against it (but, since nobody wants another election so soon, they would eventually arrange for enough of their members to be absent so the minority government doesn’t fall).
By this point, journalists know what’s going on and are getting reaction and comment from various parties to fill out their stories. They line up at microphones to ask questions in French and English (the latter mainly for broadcast journalists who need quotes their audiences can understand).
The finance minister leaves to head back to the nearby legislature, and final touches are put on stories until it’s 4pm and everyone can file.
It’s a bit odd not having Internet access for that long. It’s one thing not to be able to communicate with the outside world (you just kind of hope someone isn’t desperately trying to reach you because your basement is flooding or something). But simple things like checking something on Wikipedia or finding an old newspaper article through an online database search aren’t available to you. There are printed copies of previous budgets available for reference, but in general if you don’t have a printed or downloaded copy of something, you need to wait until after 4pm to reference it.
I drafted some tweets to go out the second the lockup ended, using Notepad to count the characters. I only realize now that I counted wrong, skipping over 110 and 130 on my way to 140. Oh well.
Finally 4pm comes, I’ve compiled highlights from the reporters and I’m ready to post. But the lockup isn’t over yet. And I don’t know if the finance minister is standing in the legislature because there’s no live TV in the room. Finally I pull out my pocket FM radio (receiving-only devices are allowed in the lockup), where I tune to CBC Radio and learn the lockup is still in effect (and that because Quebec City is handling the broadcast for the whole province, the Quebec City station is giving Montreal afternoon traffic information).
I’m not sure what caused the delay, but it was longer than usual before the speech began and the lockup ended.
Finally, the all-clear was given by the officials, and it was finally time to go online and transmit.
Knowing how chaotic this would be, I was given three ways to connect to the Internet. There was the laptop’s Wi-Fi, which could connect to the Wi-Fi the lockup would turn on once the green light was given. This was kind of expected to fail because of the sheer number of people who would be trying to connect simultaneously. Everyone was given a password to connect, and sure enough it didn’t work for anybody for several minutes.
As a backup, I had a USB stick on the Bell network. It needed special software to activate, but it had been tested and should have worked fine. And if both those failed, I had an iPhone, which I could tether to the laptop to file via its 3G network.
All three methods failed, mainly for the same reason. As Authier was on the phone with the assignment desk in Montreal telling them what was in the budget, I was frantically trying the three different methods (switching between them was kind of a process, and could easily confuse the computer). I think it was about 15 minutes before I finally got through. For the next two hours, I was editing stories and, through a VPN, posting them directly to the Gazette’s website as if I was in the office.
I was one of the last to leave the room, just before they were going to kick me out. We went out to dinner to unwind from a long day, stayed another night at the hotel, and most of us left the next day back for Montreal. I got in a visit of a couple of hours at CBC’s Quebec City offices, but that’s another story I’ll tell you about soon.
I hope to go back for the next Quebec budget (the federal budget is covered mainly by Postmedia News, the Ottawa Citizen and others that don’t need me to travel from Montreal). Unfortunately, Quebec City won’t be seeing budget action for a while. The budget we covered in November was actually the 2013-14 budget, presented months early so that opposition parties wouldn’t bring down the government over it. So barring a snap election and quicker new budget by another party, the next time we should be heading up to Quebec should be in the spring of 2014.
The rules for Thursday’s federal budget lockup are here. They’re similar to the Quebec one, except that at the end there’s a (carefully escorted) bus ride to Parliament Hill for journalists still under lockup just before the minister speaks.