UPDATED: The first rule of Jim Flaherty’s figh—er, consultation club: Don’t talk about the consultation club!

Okay, it’s time to run a little ITQ-flavoured fact check on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s claim that a “great deal of consultation” has gone into the budget thus far, which he made earlier this morning in Thornhill, just before going into a closed-door, by-invitation-only “consultation roundtable”:

This is the fourth prebudget consultation roundtable – the first was in Saint John, New Brunswick before Christmas, and then on Monday this week in Montreal; here today in the greater Toronto area, and then we will be in Vancouver — I’m sorry, in Victoria next week for a further prebudget consultation.

As you know we’re having very broad and deep consultations, not only in this form of roundtables, but the economic advisory council with whom I have met twice and will be meeting again in Vancouver on Sunday.

The consultations that are being done by other ministers, including Ministers Strahl and Baird, Minister Finlay of course with respect to human resource issues, and Minister Clement with respect to sectoral issues relating to Industry Canada.

A great deal of consultation has gone on — I’ve met with the opposition members from the liberal party, Mr. Brison, Mr. McCallum before Christmas. I will be meeting with Mr. Layton and Mr. Mulcair of the NDP next week. And I previously met with Mr. Laforet of the Bloc. And Canadians wishing to communicate on the budget can communicate through the public meetings we’re having of course, like last night in Durham region, but also through the web site of the department of finance at fin.Gc.Ca and follow the lead to the budget section.

Oh, where to begin?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that, unlike the traditional cross-country pre-budget consultations conducted by the House of Commons Finance committee – which was planning to begin holding hearings in early December, but was rendered instantly, if temporarily nonoperational by the abrupt prorogation of Parliament – the minister’s office has no plans to release the names of the groups and individuals at the table.

When ITQ inquired whether it would be possible to get a list of the “invited stakeholders”, she was told that the details will not be given out, as there is an “expectation of confidentiality for those who want it.” Speaking on behalf of the minister’s office, a spokesperson pointed out that some groups – like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – “announce themselves that they’ve participated”; the list, we were told, also includes “academics, business reps, labour reps, NGOs, some political leaders and think tanks.”

As for his meetings with opposition leaders, Flaherty pointed to the pre-Christmas meeting with Liberal MPs John McCallum and Scott Brison. What he didn’t mention, however, was the open letter that the pair sent him in advance of that meeting, in which they called on the minister to provide updated economic forecasts, a “detailed reconciliation of national and public accounts projections,” more information on his proposal to generate additional revenue by selling off crown assets, and finally, a “full briefing” from Finance officials, with Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page in attendance.

That may be because as yet, his office has yet to deliver any of the requested information: In an interview yesterday, Brison told CBC’s Susan Bonner that the minister “really hasn’t addressed” the concerns that he and McCallum raised during the pre-Christmas meeting. “We expected further meetings. Minister Flaherty has not followed up to actually confirm those meetings, and in fact, by the deafening silence, doesn’t seem to be interested in that. We had some simple requests that we needed to make sure Canadians had the fiscal hard ground and the good fiscal numbers we need to make good decisions, that we are not going to be balancing the books with some sort of phony asset sale.”

Finally, the minister suggests that Canadians can “communicate” through “public meetings” – like the one he held the previous night in Whitby – his very own riding, as luck would have it – despite the fact that the announcement for this “pre-budget town hall” was made  just one day before it happened, and as yet, there is no indication as to where and when any future public meetings will take place.

As for the online consultations, the departmental website does, indeed, invite Canadians to “share their views and priorities” by ranking various stimulus proposals: infrastructure spending, labour markets and training, sectoral support, housing and improved access to credit. There’s even a “your idea here” empty drop-down box if you have a brilliant idea that didn’t make the short list. Loquacious armchair economists should be warned, however, that additional comments are limited to just fifty words, which makes it a challenge to explain why the government should immediately implement a Larouche-inspired action plan to colonize the moon by 2020, should one wish to do so.

Taking all of the above into account, ITQ hereby gives Flaherty a FactCheck Factor of – oh, let’s say 3.5/10, with a bonus point for being forced to put together what one of his boss’ unnamed senior staffers is now billing as “one of the most important budgets in Canadian history” in roughly a third of the time that would normally be available to the Finance minister.

As that same unnamed PMO staffer told journalists earlier this week: “We’re going through what I think is an unprecedented consultation process,  both in terms of the senior level it’s occurring at, the breadth and depth of that consultation and also the speed at which it’s being done.” What remains to be seen, of course, is whether it will actually work. Godspeed, little Finance Minister. Godspeed.

UPDATE: Speaking of the Prime Minister, he just held a brief media availability of his own before heading into yet another set of not-exactly-public pre-budget consultations — not that ITQ is suggesting that all such meetings should be open air free-for-alls, but it would be nice if we at least had some idea of who was getting together behind those closed doors.

Anyway, towards the end of the question-and-answer session, he mentioned that he was hoping to meet with Michael Ignatieff again – presumably before next Thursday’s First Ministers’ meeting, since by that point, the final structure of the budget will have been decided, at least as far as the big-ticket items. He didn’t, however, say whether or not he’ll be pushing his Finance Minister to make sure that the Liberal leader will have been given access to that additional information that Brison and McCallum requested last month.

EVEN UPDATIER: Colleague Wherry has more of yesterday’s interview with Brison, as well as a special bonus track featuring that named senior PMO official we all know and love.