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TERRENCE MCEACHERN: Embargoed copies of the budget for media is needed

P.E.I. has a traditional way of doing things. But maybe now is the time to start some new traditions for next year and better serve the public. GUARDIAN PHOTO
P.E.I. has a traditional way of doing things. But maybe now is the time to start some new traditions for next year and better serve the public. GUARDIAN PHOTO - The Guardian

Provincial budget day.

It’s one of the more important annual events for any reporter. 

You get to see a province’s plan for the upcoming year – how much it plans to spend, how much it plans to collect in taxes and how much the debt has risen. 

The April 8 provincial budget day was my first on P.E.I. and my first since leaving Saskatchewan in December 2015. I wore the same suit as I have in the past, but that’s another story.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it would be similar to past budget experiences.

Let me recap how it works in Saskatchewan.

At the Regina Leader-Post, we would sign a sheet agreeing to an embargo and get a copy of the budget the day before. 

Then someone, usually our political columnist at the legislature, would bring over at least 10 copies to the newsroom. 

After 5 p.m., we’d meet in the boardroom for pop and pizza, and pour over the budget. We usually had six or seven reporters and two columnists covering the budget. 

We’d take our time and go through it line by line looking for what’s new, what’s changed or what’s missing, and then pitch two stories. 

Our copies of the budget would come home with us so we could head straight over to the technical briefing at the legislature the next morning.  

The briefing was held in a large room with 30 or more reporters from different organizations attending, including the three big television broadcasters, radio, print and the Canadian Press as well as reporters from some of the smaller communities.  

Since we had already seen the budget, the technical briefing was a quick overview, and then a microphone was passed around so we could ask questions and get clarifications. 

It was fun because we all knew each other. But, it was also a big deal and there was a lot of pressure to get your stories done by deadline.

After the technical briefing and the press conference with the finance minister, we scattered and went our separate ways. 

There was usually a couple of hours to kill before the budget was read by the finance minister, so we’d leave and start writing our stories as best as we could, and then head back for scrums and interviews. 

Like in other provinces and territories, The Saskatchewan Legislative Building has its own unique set of quirks. One is the rotunda – the circular area about one-third the size of a gymnasium where politicians pour into after question period.

On budget day, it’s also the place where media, executive directors, lobby groups, communications staff, mayors, city councillors, MPs and even journalism students at the University of Regina, all pack into. My best guess is there is about 100 people in there after the budget is read. Everyone shows up. 

It was an experience, to say the least.

So, what’s the point of this trip down memory lane?

Quite frankly, after my experience with budget day here, I think there are a couple of things that need to improve.

Here’s one – let’s make budget day into an experience.

When I entered the Coles Building, I expected the same sort of crowd as I would have in Saskatchewan, albeit on a smaller scale. 

The only group I saw was the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce. 

There were a few scrums, but I was also surprised that I had to chase MLAs getting on an elevator to leave. 

Granted, there isn’t much space in the Coles Building for a large social and media event, and I suspect that once renovations are completed at Province House, budget days will become more of an experience. As well, unpopular budgets will bring out the critics as well. 

But let’s see what we can do in the meantime to make it more of an event and get the mayors, executive directors, MLAs, and so on into one room to be accessible to the media. 

But here’s the main change that needs to happen – getting the media embargoed copies of the budget the day before. 

Given all of the copies of the budget that are handed out in Saskatchewan, there was never a breach when I was there, and only a rumour of that happening before. The rumour also was that media organization was cut off from access to the governing party for a period of time. I don’t have proof of either of these claims, but that’s what the rumours were.

On P.E.I., there was only about seven reporters in the lockdown. And of that group, I doubt that anyone is dumb enough to breach a budget embargo.

But it’s a good idea because reporters would be better prepared for the technical briefing, which in turn allows us to ask better questions and better serve the public. 

Pouring through the budget the first time droopy eyed at 8:30 a.m. without Internet access to search items isn’t the best way to go about it. It would also limit the amount of time that reporters and government staff spend talking about clarifications days after the budget.

I get it. 

P.E.I. has a traditional way of doing things. But maybe now is the time to start some new traditions for next year and better serve the public.

terrence.mceachern@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/terry_mcn

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