Pre-budget hearings – put Christmas dinner arguments to good use

Kelly Harris

The holidays have ended and no doubt everyone who spent time with family heard what is wrong with Ontario and Canada. More often than not how to fix it also got thrown in.

Whether it’s that one uncle or perhaps granddad going over the top complaining about this tax or that program, there is always an opinion. Sometimes it leads to arguments, sometimes others muttering, “would they please shut up” under their breath, sometimes more eggnog.

We generally hear that things will change in the next election and too seldom they actually do. All too often this is the same sentiment is heard around boardroom tables and the offices of local businesses and trade associations.

We can also read about the local gripes from town, city and municipal councils or watch them live on local cable channels. They’ll throw in a motion or two, achieving a grand total of zero changes.

Again the sentiment is the same, next election we are going to change things. That defeatist attitude would be like saying, after a poor year-end, “next year we’re going to fix things,” but taking no steps to do so and making no changes.

So it amazes me every year during the province’s pre-budget hearings that it is the same groups, the same gripes and very little solutions presented. Very little government can get behind or hang their hat on. This allows government – whichever government it is – to cherry pick their favourite issues to submit as a pre-budget report and, of course, the opposition to oppose based too-often on partisanship.

In 2012, I started a program with Central 1 Credit Union – the then provincial trade association for Ontario and B.C. credit unions – to use pre-budget hearings to promote the industry. We were not even looking for any specific changes at the time, however my strategy was to use the hearings as what I call marketing to government.

Basically getting government comfortable with our industry. Then we worked on what we wanted fixed. Government was already comfortable with us, saw the benefit and was willing to make the needed changes.

I am not going to tell you my opinion of the results, but as a direct result of the strategy credit unions in Ontario and B.C. were able to gain:

  • Province-wide hearings and a review of the Credit Union and Caisses Populaire Act, 1994;
  • Increased deposit insurance for Ontario credit union members from $100,000 to $250,000 per member;
  • Ability for Ontario credit unions to own property and casualty insurance brokerages;
  • Continued small business tax treatment for British Columbia credit unions;
  • Ability for Ontario credit unions to syndicate loans across Canada, and;
  • The Ontario government committing to a rewrite of the Credit Union and Caisses Populaire Act, 1994.

Both the banks and insurance industry opposed some of these changes, yet Ontario and B.C.’s credit union system — tiny compared to both those industries – were able to prevail as winners.

Additionally many of these changes were announced, not at Queen’s park or downtown Toronto, but in Hamilton because that is where I was working at the time. The relationship I was able to build for the credit union system and myself allowed for the focus of massive changes to how credit unions are regulated. And allowed for my company to be promoted at the same time.

So the next time you look at your PenFinancial or Meridian or Tandia or FirstOntario – the four largest credit unions in the Niagara Region – account, remember your money is protected two-and-a-half times more than at the big banks. This is in no small part due to an effective pre-budget strategy.

This is all to say that shortly before Christmas Ontario’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs released its schedule for pre-budget hearings in anticipation of the 2020 Ontario Budget – Finance Minister Rod Phillips first. As is usually the case the Niagara Region and Hamilton will get local hearings.

This year hearings will be held in Niagara Falls and unlike most things in government the hearings happen quickly. Next Thursday is the final date to have your request to appear before the committees and the hearings – Niagara Falls dates have not been announced – will begin on the 17th in Toronto and the regional hearings the week of the 20th.

Final date to submit your position paper in writing is January 24th.

Regardless of what side of the isle – if you have a side – you find yourself on there are friendly faces at the committee. Sandy Shaw, MPP for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, is an Ontario NDP member of the committee. As for the governing Progressive Conservatives, Donna Skelly of Flamborough-Glanbrook is on the committee.

Additionally, local members often swap in and out of the committee so they can hear the issues of constituents directly. This comes in handy when you lobby to be one of the groups appearing before the committee.

I suggest you have a well thought out strategy for pre-budget hearings. Working with someone who knows how to build a 360-degree strategy around the hearings has proven to be a winner for industry across the province.

Committee hearings are not a total strategy mind you. Regulated organizations and trade associations that want to grow and succeed should still have a well-developed government relations, advocacy and communications plan — as I said before “marketing to government.” However, pre-budget committee hearings are a valuable tactic that should be part of your overall government relations/business development plan.

The hearings are televised and recorded in Hansard as a record of the work you are doing to promote your organization’s goals. Your board can see a solid record of your advocacy and proof you are advancing their wishes.

The goal of course is get your changes as part of the upcoming budget. However, the first phase should be to have your issue supported by the committee. This is like planting a flag, putting an advocacy point to reference and to use that for upcoming meetings with elected officials and regulators.

If you get your position supported and it doesn’t end up in the budget, then you can use it to work with your local MPPs toward one-off changes or even changes in the fall economic statement – aka the mini-budget.

People often scoff at things we hear from Queen’s Park like, “open for business,” “accessible government” and “a government that listens.” Well pre-budget hearings are an example of why democracy works. A forum to get before our elected officials, that is open and public and recorded, so next Christmas you can tell granddad you took his issue to government.

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