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Locked up, locked out

Maclean Kay
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Maclean Kay on a very usual Budget Day.

Hopefully, this was the last virtual budget lockdown.

Normally – you know, not during a global pandemic – media and stakeholders spend the day in a large ballroom, phones confiscated, literally locked in a room with no Internet. Budget documents come in the form of a big ol’ stack of paper.

And aside from coffee, snacks, and inexplicably romanticized sandwiches…that’s all you get. It works very well; everything you need is front of you, with an absolute minimum of distractions.

Obviously, that wasn’t possible this year; a large indoor crowd would most definitely count as “blowing it.”

Instead, the provincial government set up a Virtual Budget Lockdown. It was a herculean task: replicating the access and confidential setting of a regular budget day, only remotely, juggling the diverse needs, hardware, and (ahem) technical skills of staff, media, and stakeholders alike.

They tried. They really did.

My hat is off to the staff who kept trying, even when it became clear they were bailing out a leaky canoe. Despite their best efforts, budget documents weren’t accessible to me for almost half an hour – and I had company. I asked staff about a significant increase in Premier’s Office budget; I got a note back much later in a new, in-system inbox I had no idea existed.

Worst of all, “chat room” scrums with stakeholders were an unmitigated disaster, failing almost across the board.

It was the kind of day where the virtual help desk’s chat room directs you to call someone, who in turn directs you to send an email – and that response says the budget lockup site isn’t their site, and there’s nothing they can do; thoughts and prayers.

Oh yes, the budget itself. Coming one day after a feverish federal budget, the NDP’s delayed provincial version seemed comparatively dull.

“The budget is a prudent budget, that relies heavily on the successful roll out of BC’s vaccination program and our curbing transmission, which will enable businesses to open and stay open,” said Fiona Famulak, President and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce in a news release.

I would’ve liked to ask her directly in a stakeholder room. I tried.

On the other hand, those hoping the NDP would throw caution to the wind might be disappointed; the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives was unhappy with a “misplaced aspiration to return to balanced budgets through spending constraints when public investment is essential.”

That said, not much in the budget seems to warrant a two-month delay.

The first surprise: the deficit is less than originally forecast – but the NDP have to dance gingerly here, given that it’s largely due to skyrocketing housing costs and sales – some $500 million more in revenue than projected just a few months ago.

“No one expected that,” said Minister Selina Robinson about steadily increasing real estate activity – which only makes sense if you sincerely believe ever-growing demand for housing was tamed with a speculation and foreign buyers’ tax.

For perspective, the deficit is still an eye-watering $9.7 billion, with no realistic prospect of climbing out anytime soon. One can only imagine traveling back in time to last February’s pre-pandemic budget, and telling one’s self next year’s deficit is less than $10 billion – and you were relieved.

Interestingly, even with first-dose vaccination ramping up, the provincial government is holding back a lot of economic aid; nearly $3.1 billion in contingency funds and other unallocated rainy-day money set aside for rapid response. This allows for flexibility, but also cold comfort for businesses and industries crying for aid today.

Of all the hundreds of pages of line items, one in particular raised multiple eyebrows – a multimillion dollar jump in the Premier’s Office budget. When asked, both government officials and Minister Robinson gave oddly cagey answers, saying the government needed to communicate with everyday British Columbians. While true, this is not necessarily best accomplished with more six-figure staff in the government’s highest office – and warrants some more questions.

Thankfully, this virtual budget will likely be a one-off, with logistical and technological lessons learned, and next year, we’re all back together in the same room.

The only thing I didn’t miss was the sandwiches.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

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