Originally published on Torontoist on March 31, 2011.
“We’re in for a long day.”
Overhearing this amid the din of a boardroom in the Macdonald Block, those of us still groggily waking up at Torontoist’s designated table in the media room wondered what we might have gotten ourselves into. Covering the provincial budget was new for us, after all. We were invited to be part of the annual tradition known as the budget lockup, in which reporters from various media outlets are sequestered for several hours to review the budget before its release to the public and to ask government figures questions about its content. No phones, no internet, no contact with the outside world for eight hours.
And so as we settled in, we wondered: would attending the lockup be an educational experience or one that felt like a prison sentence?
We arrived early. Very early. At 8 a.m., we were amongst the first of the media finding their way past OPP officers to assigned spots. We opened our registration packages, which included instructions on how to turn off wireless connections—helpfully illustrated with diagrams of the Wi-Fi signal icon (for Mac users only), in case we weren’t sure how to do that. Waiting at each of our seats was a folder containing photocopied press releases, the three-hundred-page budget document, and a thinner tome featuring the speech Finance Minister Dwight Duncan would give fellow MPPs eight hours later. Duncan’s speech read like a printout of a Twitter feed—sentence-long paragraphs, few containing more than 140 characters. The formatting of the speech was ideal for dramatic pauses during its reading—or a creative interpretation by William Shatner.
As mellow jazz played in the background, we spent the next hours digesting the budget. We quickly realized just how integral a research tool the internet has become when we were denied its riches of information whenever we wanted to look up agency names or old news items. We couldn’t phone external sources either: like the ‘net, phone lines were blocked during the blackout period. But we weren’t left completely in the dark: experts from the Ministry of Finance were on hand to answer our questions to the best of their knowledge. Still, we felt disconnected from the rest of the world; a catastrophe could occur a block away and we would have been oblivious.
Gradually the room filled up and the jazz gave way to the drone of other reporters poring over their packages. A basic spread that would cause only the most zealous watchdogs of public spending worry was served for lunch: lasagna, salad, breadsticks, cookies, soft drinks. As 1 p.m. neared, the noise level in the room decreased as the media and a growing number of government and party officials awaited the arrival of Dwight Duncan to begin the afternoon’s round of speeches and Q&A sessions.
As Duncan and opposition party leaders Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath spoke, we found ourselves lulled and latching onto the key phrases they repeated ad nauseum. Duncan linked Hudak to Mike Harris, to the point where both men’s names rolled off his tongue like one—“Harrishudak.” The speeches by Hudak and Horwath mentioned “families” every other sentence. By the time the opposition leaders brought up families for the fifty-ninth time, it was hard to keep groans internalized. It was interesting to notice the steady decrease in the number of questions each candidate was asked: Duncan filled his forty-five-minute slot; Hudak took half an hour (assisted by quasi-bouncer Norm Miller); Horwath, eleven minutes. The speakers’ backdrops also reflected their status in government: Duncan had the video screens that played budget propaganda all day; Hudak used a sizeable backboard to cover up the screens and a smaller banner on the podium; Horwath had a skinny backboard that the flags onstage cozied up to.
Some parties prepared their press material better than others. When we noticed a Conservative staffer handing out folders, we went up to grab one…only to find that we were out of luck because they printed only fifty copies for a room filled with at least two or three times as many reporters—from which we must conclude a Harrishudak government would save taxpayers money by tightly monitoring the provincial photocopiers. The NDP was better organized, as their staffer handed out single-page statements to be passed around each table.
When the blackout period ended at 4 p.m., mayhem ensued. Some news organizations headed out the door. Some picked up the phones, frantically hitting the hang-up button and waiting for the lines to be turned back on. Most waited for the restoration of internet access to their laptops, though this proved frustrating for several unlucky souls (we latched onto unused DSL lines, as wireless service was non-existent in the room).
By the time we finished filing our initial batch of reports at 5:45 p.m., the room looked as if a parade had gone by, with abandoned folders and remnants of meals left behind. A few diehard reporters were still working while the room was transformed back into an empty meeting space. In the midst of the resetting of chairs and the removal of the detritus, we reflected on the provincial budget lockup and determined that though there were dead points in the day, ten hours in the room wasn’t penal punishment—in fact, it was kind of fun.
I also wrote the following summary of NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s criticisms of the budget, originally published on March 29, 2011.
Perhaps the skinny background sign should have been a tipoff. Of all the government figures who spoke about the budget in the media lockup, New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath took up the least amount of time. While Finance Minister Dwight Duncan spent forty-five minutes talking to the crowd and Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak took a half hour to offer up his response, Horwath outlined her concerns, took questions, and was off the stage in less than eleven minutes.
Like Hudak, Horwath repeatedly referred to families and their struggles to cope with financial insecurity, and how those concerns were ignored in the budget. “Today’s budget shows that Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals are simply out of touch with the pressures facing Ontario families,” she noted. “The premier says he’s turning a corner, but most families feel like they’ve been left by the side of the road while he drives by.”
Many of her attacks on the government focused on corporate tax incentives that were painted as a giveaway of funds that could have helped families coping with job losses and high electric bills. For example: “New Democrats asked the McGuinty government to put people first in this budget. They failed. They could have made life more affordable for families. Instead, they put another four hundred million into a tax giveaway while families have to pay more.” She complained about fuzzy language surrounding the reduction of public-sector CEO salaries by 10%, noting that if they were truly serious about making such a change, the language would have been made in concrete terms.
Horwath also outlined a number of issues that the NDP felt Ontarians had no reason to trust the Liberals on, from the increase in funding for breast cancer examinations (when clinics specializing in this area had closed ) to opening up more post-secondary spaces (when current students were struggling to afford their studies). She feared that a review of ServiceOntario would lead to American-style privatization of public-service delivery and result in consumer fiascos like the sale of Highway 407. She demanded that all details regarding any contracting-out of services had to be fully revealed before final decisions were made.
Among the few queries directed at Horwath during a five-minute question period was one concerning the scrapping of the proposed Toronto West Courthouse at the former Westwood Theatre site in Etobicoke. She felt this was a weak way to save money given the backup of cases within the justice system. Otherwise, the brief duration of the Q&A session possibly betrayed a disinterest among the assembled reporters in hearing what the third party leader had to say. They got the skinny, then moved on to work on their reports.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Covering the 2011 provincial budget was the moment I felt like I’d settled into a full-time freelancing career. It came at a transitional time in my life: I’d recently been laid off from the desk job I’d had since moving to Toronto in 1999.
The night before my department was downsized out of existence, I was at a gathering at Massey College. I don’t recall what the occasion was – it may have part of a series of Q&As with prominent journalists. I do recall telling people that, after 11-1/2 years of being a cubicle jockey at Canadian Tire’s home office, I was thinking of moving on before year’s end. I was really enjoying my growing side freelancing gigs, and wondered if I could make a go of that, or related steady work.
The next morning, there was a buzz in the air at the office. An invite to a mysterious early afternoon meeting was sent around, which led to rumours of layoffs. I spent the rest of the morning preparing to be let go, by cleaning out my desk and saving freelance and portfolio files from my computer.
The rumours were true. The meeting was short, and I was soon on my way home in a taxi with a package outlining options for my financial future. I called my partner at the time, and we wound up analyzing the situation over dinner at the New York Cafe (a greasy spoon at Broadview and Danforth). Still a little shaken, I laughed at my thoughts of the night before.
It didn’t take long for me to realize being laid off was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The buyout package I chose, combined with 11-1/2 years of accumulated profit sharing, provided income for several years while I concentrated on building my freelance portfolio. I half-heartedly looked for permanent work, but spent more time relishing my freedom and working on my craft.
To this day, I bear no grudges toward Canadian Tire. They provided a steady living as I settled into life in Toronto, a sane working environment after surviving the black comedy of the university paper I’d previously worked for, and the means to get my true career going.
Business relationships I’d been building elsewhere grew stronger. At Torontoist, this meant taking on an increased role, which evolved into a staff writing position with a set quota of pieces per month. Financially it was next to useless, but my work on “Historicist” and other posts led to much more lucrative opportunities.
This also meant the room to experiment with the types of pieces I wrote – Hamutal Dotan deserves many thanks for pushing me into new areas during her editorial tenure. Cover a provincial budget lockup? Sure, why not? At worst, I’d write about the experience. It would be the first of many interesting places I’d find myself over the next few years I doubt I would have imagined sitting at my desk staring out over Yonge Street while trying to get the marketing department to hand in their documents correctly.