Printing costs soar for producing federal budget documents

Premier's memory of scary financial precipice disputed by those in know

Finance Canada is spending a record amount for paper copies of next week's budget documents, despite the Liberal government's embrace of the digital economy.

The department has signed a $554,000 contract with an Ottawa-based printer for the blizzard of budget documents to be released March 22.

That's almost a quarter-million dollars higher than the last Conservative budget in 2015, when the department said it was starting to cut back on paper copies. The amount is also significantly higher than the $490,000 the Liberals spent to print their inaugural budget last year.

In his 2016 budget speech, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told Canadians that "digital technology has already transformed how we live and work. These changes will accelerate. … Canada can be a leader in this new environment."

Free download

For years, all budget documents have been made available online, for free, shortly after the finance minister stands up in the House of Commons to deliver his speech.

But in secure "lockups" in Ottawa several hours before the speech, MPs, senators, economists, stakeholders, journalists, federal and provincial officials are given paper copies of everything to brief them on the contents. They can then quickly write and comment in detail soon after they're set free, usually at about 4 p.m. ET.

"Distribution is very limited outside these groups," said department spokesman David Barnabe.

The printing contract this year is with Lowe-Martin Co. Inc., which must quickly produce French and English versions of pamphlets, news releases, Morneau's speech and the softcover main budget document itself — all within a short time-frame and under strict security.

Last year, the main budget document ran to 270 pages, with a cover in full colour. The printing tender suggests there will be about 3,500 copies in English, 1,900 in French, next week.

Barnabe said printing costs can fluctuate, depending on the cost of paper and the deadline.

"Also, the printing industry is seeing less demand overall as we move to digital platforms [and] this has led to fewer suppliers and an increase in overall printing costs."

Budget printing jobs were split between two firms until last year, when Lowe-Martin was given the entire contract. Last year, printing the budget cost $113,000 more than planned and this year's final figure could be higher as well.

Unlike Finance Canada, the rest of the federal government has been abandoning ink-on-paper editions of various publications since at least 2012, when the Conservative budget that year authorized a transition to online-only publication.

Advertising contract

That transition was completed on March 7, 2014, when Ottawa's publishing arm — Publishing and Depository Services — stopped selling or distributing government of Canada publications in "tangible" formats, which includes paper and CDs.

There are currently about 130,000 online-only publications available for free download, with about 1,000 titles added each month.

The move to online-only publications was estimated in 2012 to eventually save $178 million a year.

Finance Canada last week also signed a contract with Quebec-based Cossette Communication Inc. for almost $450,000 to place ads on television, radio and online.

The previous Conservative government came under fire for airing spots for programs that had not yet been approved by Parliament. Barnabe said the coming round of ads will be confined to "key measures announced in 2016-2017 that have already received royal assent," that is, have run the full legislative gamut.

The Liberal government has instituted an independent review process to ensure government ads are non-partisan.

A CBC News analysis last year estimated the costs of presenting and releasing a federal budget at more than $150,000 (excluding printing costs), including security, transportation, venue rental, audio-visual services, food and beverages.

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