For you, the citizen, the most important thing to know is that the budget never changes after the finance minister presents the budget to the House of Assembly on Budget Day. If you want to have any impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. I have written a separate post with some tips on how to do that.
On Budget Day, the budget documents are made available in PDF format on the government website. That is usually the first chance citizens to have to see what is in the budget.
Reporters, the opposition parties and some non-government organizations get an advance look at the budget on Budget Day, starting 4-5 hours before the finance minister delivers the budget speech. This is humorously referred to as “the lock-up”, because everyone who takes part is not allowed to leave the room, and is not allowed to communicate with anyone outside the room, until the budget speech starts.
After the finance minister’s budget speech is over, the Opposition finance critic makes a reply of 10-15 minutes. The budget is then referred to “the Committee on Estimates”, but that committee doesn’t begin its work until the following day.
The budget discussion is sometimes referred to as “the Supply debate”. Whenever you hear the word “Supply” or “Estimates”, just translate it as “budget”. It means the same thing.
To discuss the budget, the House divides itself in two. There are four main things you need to know:
- Budget discussions are carried on simultaneously in the legislative chamber and in the Red Room of Province House. Citizens are welcome to attend one or the other, but only the proceedings in the main chamber are broadcast on television. The transcript (Hansard) of the budget discussions is not published. If you want to know precise details of what is happening in the budget debate, you have to watch.
- The Opposition picks five ministers whose budgets will be discussed in the main chamber, and the order in which they will be discussed. The budgets of all other ministers are discussed in the Red Room, alphabetically by department.
- Each minister may bring two staff members with them to help answer questions. This is one of the very rare occasions when someone who is not an MLA is allowed on the floor of the House. Even so, the staff members do not answer questions directly, but can only whisper advice to the minister. Only the minister can speak into the microphone.
- There is a time limit of forty hours on each side (legislative chamber and Red Room), and a further time limit of four hours each day. That means the budget debate lasts ten working days.
When the budget discussion is finished, there is a vote. The budget vote is a confidence vote. If the budget is defeated, the government “falls” and there must be an election. That last happened in Nova Scotia in 1999. Something similar happened in 2009, but technically the government fell on another vote, not the budget vote.
It’s important to note that MLAs get one vote (Yes or No) to the entire budget. They do not get to support one part of the budget, and oppose another part. There is no line-by-line voting. It’s either Yes to the whole thing, or No to the whole thing. Just because an MLA votes Yes to a budget doesn’t mean they like everything in it, and just because an MLA votes No to a budget doesn’t mean they’re opposed to everything in it. Essentially the vote is “Do I want this government to continue?”
A budget never changes between Budget Day and the day of the budget vote. There was even one year where I found an error in the budget, and the government acknowledged the error, but still wouldn’t change the documents. You might wonder: why bother with all the budget discussion if nothing ever changes?
The purpose of the budget discussion is to find out exactly what the numbers mean. The budget documents are mostly stated in dollar figures. The purpose of the budget discussion is to dig under the numbers to see what they really mean, in terms of new programs being established, and old programs being eliminated or modified. That’s the sort of thing MLAs ask questions about. However, it is also true that the budget debate can seem long and very boring, if the MLAs who are asking questions don’t really understand the operations of the department whose minister they are questioning, or if the MLAs are asking questions only about details of government operations in their own constituency.
In summary: If you, the citizen, wish to have an impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. Once the budget is presented to the House of Assembly, it’s too late.