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Even for a country with a system of government that is prone to keeping things confidential, the secrecy that once surrounded federal budgets stood out.

For decades, both Liberal and Conservative federal governments gradually eroded that once seemingly sacred concept with selective advance leaks.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken it to a new level. Instead of leaks attributed to anonymous sources, the prime minister has been traveling the country to give Canadians a preview of a variety of major budget measures. Many of them appear to be intended to lure back younger voters to his Liberal Party, including spending to increase housing, expanding child care programs and introducing a national school food program.

There may be little in the way of big announcements left for Chrystia Freeland, the finance minister, to unveil when she presents the actual budget on April 16.

“This preannouncement of the budget roadshow — we’ve never seen that before at the prime ministerial level,” Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Carleton University who studies Parliament, told me. “There has to be an election next year and the government is not doing well in the polls. So that’s an important factor. He needs the coverage; he needs the supposed good news.”

Mr. Trudeau’s approach is a stark contrast to the one taken by Louis St. Laurent, who was the Liberal prime minister from 1948 to 1957. To avoid having secretaries or clerks learn about budget measures in advance, Mr. St. Laurent made his finance ministers personally type their budget speeches.

A vast budget secrecy machine developed over time. Copies of the federal budget were flown across the country by the air force and escorted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to branches of the Bank of Canada, where they would be locked up until the finance minister spoke. Government printers were locked down in printing plants and reporters were locked up in conference rooms, along with officials and political staffers offering spins and explanations, to review the mountain of paper in advance.

“Over time, it became almost a fetish that this was just a uniquely secret document,” Professor Malloy said.

Leaks were taken seriously. In 1989, Doug Small, a reporter for Global TV, broadcast details of the upcoming budget after obtaining a summary version from a government employee who, in turn, had received it from someone he knew at a recycling plant. Mr. Small and four other people were charged with theft and possession of stolen property. A court threw out the case.

Unlike budgets in the United States, Canadian budgets are not the subject of protracted negotiations and amendments. They either pass more or less as presented or the government falls.

So the most common explanation for the secrecy is that it prevents people from taking advantage of, say, tax changes to profit financially. Professor Malloy said, however, that there was little evidence of people trying to do that in the past.

But keeping the major piece of legislation secret until the last minute, he said, can allow governments to bury, or at least divert attention from, potentially unpopular measures within it. Tamping down leaks also prevented lobbying within the government by departments looking for more money, he added.

The decline in budget secrecy may also reflect the diminished economic importance of the budget itself. When Canada’s economy was more isolated and less driven by global forces, government tax and spending changes had more profound effects on it. So much so that during the 1960s, the accounting office in Windsor, Ontario, where my father was a partner annually installed a Telex machine to immediately, if noisily, spew out the text of the budget.

“If you go back to St. Laurent and further in the past, the budget was more about affecting the economy,” Professor Malloy said. “But over time, the budget became storytelling. It’s less about how we’re going to shape the economy now. It’s more about what the government is doing in general.”



A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky at @ianausten.bsky.social.


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