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                   Budget Talks 2015


By Randall White

A few years ago Maclean’s magazine remarked on how “budget secrecy" is “enough of a tradition” in our parliamentary democracy that it is still explained in the latest official guide to the practice and procedure of the Canadian House of Commons.

As the guide puts it: “There is a long-standing tradition of keeping the contents of the budget secret until the Minister of Finance actually presents it in the House.” And the tradition has a lot to do with “respect for a budget’s impact on financial markets.”

Ontario was much wedded to this in the past.

More recently, however, the growing importance of pre-budget consultations outside government has begun to whittle away at the secrecy tradition. And the rise of the Internet has accelerated the process.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s decision to solicit the general public input on this year’s provincial budget through the launch of a new “Budget Talks 2015” interactive website earlier this month, takes this more recent trend to new heights.

Someone at the Ministry of Finance deserves some reward for this site. It offers those visitors who may be interested good short courses on such fundamental preliminaries as “Budget Basics” and “Public Accounts.” 

The thought behind this material, no doubt, is that if you want to make a useful contribution to the Ontario budget, you might also want to know something about what it is and how it works.

Even visitors who don’t take the voluntary training course can have their say in two different ways.

The first is to share their ideas; the second is to vote on ideas. 

In the first case visitors are submitting their own proposals. In the second case they are looking at and voting on proposals submitted by others.

A quick look at the most popular proposals, as of last Sunday, shows that the current winner is “increase funding for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate change, and for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

A total of 3188 site visitors have so far voted on this proposal —  3078 of who have given “Up votes” (again as of February 22).

That means almost 97% of all votes have agreed!

The site also notes that this proposal for more spending on the environment has been made by Temara Brown. And in the age of the Internet we can guess that this is probably the same Temara Brown who ran for the Green Party in the riding of Cambridge, in the most recent Ontario election this past June.  

The second most popular proposal so far is to provide better access to psychological services in order to improve mental health needs.  A total of 1602 visitors have voted on this proposal, and 1500 of them, or almost 94%, have given Up votes. 

The proposal here was made by “Janes27,” which is also the twitter identity of Jane Storrie — a clinical neuropsychologist from Ontario.  On Budget Talks 2015 she says allowing 12 psychological sessions resulted in "tremendous" cost savings to both the UK and Australian governments. 

If you’re starting to think that maximum public consultation on the budget is just going to involve more individuals with their own interests arguing that more public money should be spent on them, you might at first be relieved by the fifth most popular proposal.

This admirably argues for full transparency for work paid for with public funds.  But some still-a-little-secretive gnomes of Queen’s Park would say the info is already in the estimates and public accounts.

(And hardly anyone looks at them now!)

It is impossible to evaluate Budget Talk 2015's contribution to the process until after the budget is presented in the Legislature in the spring. 

But over its first few weeks the site has attracted some 384 proposals and thousands of visitors have been voting on them.

Whether a new tradition has begun remains for the future to judge. 

For the moment it is an interesting experiment in trying to mobilize the new information technology to help raise the level of popular debate on public finance. And that seems healthier and more hopeful for Ontario parliamentary democracy than some other answers currently blowing in the cold winter wind.  








About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : February 17, 2015

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