In the Government Conference Centre, no one can hear you scream

ITQ embargo-blogs the budget lockup.

10:16:00 AM
Well, hi there, everyone. Greetings from the not-so-distant past before the Jim Flaherty stood up in the House and began delivering his budget speech, otherwise known as earlier this morning. As promised, ITQ is liveblogging from the lockup, although by the time you’re reading this, she’ll be long gone from the hallowed halls of the Government Conference Centre – like the strange flavour of quark she is, and that is the only bit of quantum physics humour I’ll inflict on you today. Probably.

Anyway, as the sharper eyed amongst you have likely noted from the timestamp, I was a little late to the party, which got underway nearly 45 minutes ago, which wasn’t entirely my fault — I’d forgotten about the labyrinth through which one must proceed before being permitted to enter Finance Canada’s vision of purgatory – more on that later, of course; probably much, much more than you ever wanted to know. There are undertakings to sign and wireless modems to demonstrate the utter unoperability of which, and of course, the moment that ITQ dreads more than any other: the seizure of the BlackBerry – her case, BlackBerries in the plural – which are snatched away by a kind but firm Finance official, popped into a baggy and then tossed onto a table with dozens and dozens and dozens of other similarly purloined devices, like that storage locker at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (in answer to your question, no, ITQ does not acknowledge the existence of that Crystal Skull). Then there is a sigh, and a furtive last glance at the hypnotic blue blink of the outside world, and one proceeds downstairs. Abandon PINs, all ye who enter.

That is, of course, where I am now – working literally elbow to elbow with my fellow Macleansians in the main hall of what used to be the Ottawa railway station before it briefly became an abattoir of Brian Mulroney’s dream of constitutional reform, and then lay dormant for a few years until it was finally permitted to return to what was to be its glorious purpose. You’d think they would have come up with a more imaginative name than “Government Conference Centre”, though.

Oh, you want to know about the budget? From ITQ? Really? Actually, I’ve yet to even leaf through the pamphlet, although I keep picking up fragments of muttered commentary from my colleagues: “Oh, these tax cuts are retroactive?” “Housing. That’s a weird priority, isn’t it?” “THE END IS NIGH. NIGH, PEOPLE!” And good morning to you too, Colleague Coyne.

Speaking of which, I think I’m going to take this opportunity to join said colleague in his quest for the tuck shop, where a captive market of starving journalists will spend the day grumpily forking over far too much money for far too little substance, which we devoutly hope will not be a metaphor for this entire budget.

10:39:56 AM
Okay, so it turns out that the other room – the spillover room – actually has better amenities than the main hall: Not only is it closer to the food, but the tables aren’t squeezed together in quite such a high-school-exam-taking fashion as this room. Also, people seem to be having more fun, but that could just be a grass-greener phenomenon.

A surreal touch: the televisions, which have been set up at strategic points throughout the room so that wherever you’re sitting, you can keep an eye peeled, which are running a seemingly endless stream of budget speculation. So meta.

10:48:37 AM
Alright, I’ve finally gotten around to looking at the beast itself – the budget document, that is, which actually isn’t as thick as i was expecting, clocks in at an entirely respectable 298 pages — plus draft implementation legislation, of course. The cover is – almost painfully obvious, actually, especially considering the finance minister’s choice of gimmick footwear yesterday: it is, of course, men at work, complete with hard hats and matching industrial blue collar jumpsuits. I can’t quite tell what they’re building; it could be a bridge, or maybe a house – affordable and with a stable, guaranteed mortgage, of course. There isn’t a single shovel – ready or otherwise – in sight. I feel cheated, somehow.

Oh, you wanted to know what’s in it? Sorry – I’m still mesmerized by the cover, although Colleague Philippe – who is here as part of the world budget coverage domination tour, is keeping me posted on interesting tidbits, like $50 million a year for a new version of the sponsorship program (now known as marquee events and tourism promotion), and a chunk of money set aside as “leverage”, which neither of us understand at first.

The good news, however, is that there are experts here to help us – Finance department experts, in fact, of the bureaucratic variety, who are currently assembling along the wall under signs designating their respective areas of understanding: social housing, skills and training, employment insurance, culture, infrastructure, supporting structural adjustment. Hey, that’s basically a handy summary of the budget highlights, isn’t it?

11:12:36 AM
The first squadron of PMO sharpshooters have arrived: Dimitri and his tie are here. I’m sure they’ll eventually be joined by the rest of Team Kory and their respective ties, but there’s probably not much point in sending the entire communications team into lockdown, since they – like we – are completely cut off from the outside world, and really, what if something non-budget-related actually happened? Langevin would be paralyzed. I wonder sometimes why so many of us show up so early for these things – I mean, not me this time around, obviously, since it wouldn’t be much of a blog if I breezed in for the last half hour when almost everyone has finished their respective stories and are standing around waiting for the embargo to lift.

11:21:29 AM
I wonder how the opposition lockup is going. Having never been to one, I have no idea how the room is laid out – are the ten or so permitted representatives from each party kept in separate quarters, or is it a big room like this one with fewer tables, but far more speculative stares being exchanged? I caught a glimpse of Michael Ignatieff on Newsworld earlier, so I don’t think he’s there yet, but apparently, during the last lockup, that’s where the dark pact of the Triumvirate was sealed. Which will make for some awkward foot shuffling and pained silences between the Liberals and the other parties this time around at the very least, because the consensus seems to be that there is no poison pill in the snausages this time around.

11:28:07 AM
The bureaucrexperts, by the way, are being mobbed – I can’t tell for sure, but it seems that the “Economic Development” panel is the most popular – which makes sense, I guess, considering the alternatives are “Social issues” and “Federal-Provincial-Territorial”. Oh, and before I forget, Colleague Phil solved the mystery of the multiple mentions of “leverage” on the various balance sheets: Apparently, it refers to additional funding that Ottawa is expecting the provinces to kick in for housing, infrastructure and other big spendy items. Meanwhile, Colleague Coyne is trying to determine whether this is, in fact, the largest increase in spending since World War II, which he’s doing entirely without the aid of Google or Wikipedia, which really is kind of impressive, I’ve got to say.

11:37:42 AM
For the record, despite what certain people sitting in my row might argue, “How do you spell ‘abattoir’?” is almost certainly not the strangest question ever to be asked in a budget lockup.

You know, this room is really starting to feel like an unimaginably huge plane stuck on the tarmac. although sensation may be aggravated by the fact that I am in the middlest of the middle seat in the middle row in the middle of the room, which means that I feel guilty even thinking about getting up to stretch my legs and check out what’s happening next door.

11:50:40 AM
I’m not the only one missing my berry, by the way: a fellow reporter who shall remain nameless just confessed that he (or she) too is experiencing phantom vibrations, and an almost overwhelming feeling of nakedness. Me, I keep reflexively reaching for the place where my holsters should be.

You know, this is as good a time as any to answer one of the few actual ITQ FAQs: Why two BlackBerries? Simple: One reboot sporadically and without warning, which is annoying when you’re in the middle of typing an email, but absolutely madness-inducing when you’re liveblogging a live event, so I need a backup.

12:01:41 PM
I was just about to say that I have no idea why the camera crews so enjoy doing those sweeping shots of the lockup, and then I realized what I’m doing, and I shut my mouth. Or stopped my fingers. Whatever.

12:06:45 PM
Colleague Philippe returns from the lunch counter with unsettling news: although the lines aren’t yet insurmountably long, the only sandwiches left are roasted vegetable. “But I don’t want roasted vegetable,” I sigh. “Neither did I,” he replies, equally glum, as he ponders the roasted vegetable sandwich on his plastic plate.

Meanwhile, Mark Carney is apparently giving a press conference – no idea what the subject might be, since I’m far out of audio range. This is sort of like a journalistic social experiment: as the number of reporters charged with covering the a story steadily – if temporarily – diminishes, minute by minute, as they vanish into the lockup, can the networks sustain the frenzy of speculation?

12:17:24 PM
I have to say that monitoring the mutterings of Colleague Coyne going through the budget, page by aneurysm-inducing page, is probably the most entertaining part of the lockup so far.The crop of new regional development agencies! Money for Quebec cruise ships! Farmers! It’s like our very own At Issue panel of one. Does that make me a bad person?

12:25:18 PM
Good news, Flaherty fans! The minister *will* be dropping by the lockup to do a brief scrum – as ITQ readers will no doubt recall, his office had, in a fit of pique, pulled the plug on a planned news conference, but has undergone a change of heart, and will now make him available for a few minutes for embargoed-tape-to-video, although it will be apparently be held in a teeny tiny room somewhere in the attic, which will make for a logistical nightmare for the TV people, what with their cameras and all. And for livebloggers, come to think of it, since I can’t very well lug this laptop into an already overstuffed room. Perhaps I will have to do a post-event impressionistic take.

12:39:35 PM
I can’t decide whether being assigned to budget lockup is a punishment or a reward for the dozens of departmental officials that Finance has so helpfully provided for our deep background conversing pleasure. I guess it probably depends on whether you are at one of the high-demand expert tables – like tax relief – or standing all but ignored under the “Social Housing” sign. Actually, maybe it’s better to be in the second camp; there appears to be an impromptu intradepartmental networking session underway in the hall, which could be just what a bright young policy analyst wants.

1:01:41 PM
Okay, so it turns out there might, in fact, be something exciting going down somewhere in this building, but unfortunately, we may never know what it is: while wandering through the back warrens to the lunch counter, we came upon an impromptu confab between the Commissionaires, who normally run the show at government-organized events like this, and a flack-jacket-besuited Mountie about the apparently unexpected presence of the OPP in the driveway outside, which may or may not have had something to do with the even more inexplicable presence of at least one sniffer dog. Unfortunately, since the lockup inmates are basically a leper colony as far as communicating with the outside world, ITQ was unable to find out anything more than that, but will keep you posted.

1:09:32 PM
Maybe I should go over and talk to some of the lonelier-looking Finance officials. I could make up questions and everything, although they might just end up feeling used when they discovered that it was just a pity briefing.

Meanwhile, the imported experts – the economists, academics, industry lobbyists and other fiscal policy talking heads – are starting to break away from the media outlets that initially brought them in, and are roaming freely through the room, cheerfully providing quotes and clips to any reporter in need of le mot juste.

Did I ever tell you my brilliant idea for an expert to bring into the lockup? Kevin Page! Seriously, wouldn’t that have been fabulous? Unfortunately, it never even got to the stage where I was ready to ask him out – the gallery checked with Finance and it was deemed to be contrary to the rules.

1:28:25 PM
Alright, I admit it – I am officially getting fidgety, to the point that I’m now actually looking forward to reading rapid response reaction releases like the one that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is handing out at this very minute. They’re less than thrilled, by the way, not that this will come as a shock to anyone. There is also some confusion over whether the promised ministerial press conference – you remember, the one in the teeny tiny room – will be streamed live to the rest of us via some sort of closed circuit television loop. Apparently, until a reporter brought it up with one of the Finance minders, it hadn’t occurred to anyone to investigate the possibility. Then again, the minister’s appearance was a late addition to the schedule, and the department *has* been somewhat preoccupied with other matters.

1:48:38 PM
It’s amazing, the things you can learn in a budget lockup that have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget: the dogs in the truck outside, I have been informed, are bomb dogs – not drug dogs, as we initially suspected – and are there because any vehicle destined for the Hill must undergo a sniffening before it is allowed to proceed. Also, sniffer dogs are either trained to detect either bombs or drugs, but not both, because that would just be too confusing, especially considering the recent Supreme Court ruling that drastically curtailed the areas in which random sniff searches can take place.

2:02:06 PM
I have been deputized to cover Jim Flaherty’s surprise press conference. Wish me luck!

2:41:22 PM
Well, that was eerily similar to what happened at the lockup for the Economic and Fiscal Update: cramped quarters, surly reporters – but a minister not precisely humbled, but distinctly less ebullient about the immediate to medium-range future than the last time.

He fielded questions from what can most charitably be described as a somewhat sceptical crowd, and the underlying theme went something like this: “Why should we believe you after that trip to fiscal fantasy land on which you attempted to lure us last November?” He didn’t exactly argue the point, although at one point, tried to spread the blame around to all and sundry, temporarily rendering us speechless with the assertion that “economists got it wrong.” Yes, minister. That’s what this is all about: those woefully misguided and misguiding economists.

I’m sure most of his quotes will make it onto the newscast before you’ve even read this far into this post, so I’ll skip those and note instead that, perhaps to mark the extraordinariness of the occasion, the minister was not wearing his usual green tie, but a rather daring striped number that one of my colleagues correctly compared to a Christmas candy. More unfortunate, at least, on the symbolic front was the revelation that he wasn’t wearing the new work boots that he so proudly displayed at yesterday’s obligatory pre-budget footwear photo op: Apparently, they were too tight so he had to take them back. Make of that what you will.

2:55:51 PM
Okay, it turns out this not-quite-liveblog may end sooner than expected. Don’t worry, it’s not like i’ve gotten kicked out for insubordination; I’ve been chosen to be one of the special high maintenance journalists who are escorted out at 3:30 and put on a special bus that requires still more signed undertakings of confidentiality, which will have me back at my desk in the Hot Room in sufficient time to make sure that the initial burst of Macleansanalysis – including this post – will go live as soon as the embargo lifts. Yay!