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Federal budget lockup includes hundreds of free lunches for bureaucrats, experts

OTTAWA - There's no free lunch, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is fond of saying. Next week, however, Canadians will be paying for hundreds of them.

Free lunches and refreshments will be provided to Finance Department staff, their provincial counterparts, private-sector economists, accountants, tax lawyers and think-tank researchers who attend Tuesday's all-day federal budget lockup.

The lockup is an Ottawa tradition that gives insiders a sneak peek at the budget in secure rooms, where attendees are incommunicado for hours until the document is made public in the House of Commons, at about 4 p.m. ET.

Once inside, no one is allowed to leave, so the Finance Department feeds them and provides refreshments, without charge.

Last year it cost taxpayers more than $14,000 to feed and refresh some 1,470 people, and officials expect a similar number this year, with similar costs.

The free-lunch exceptions, however, are the 700 locked-up journalists who for several years have been provided free coffee and tea, but must dig into their own pockets for unremarkable food from a small canteen inside the media lockup.

A spokesman for the department defended free lunches for bureaucrats and guests who head into the lockup in the morning.

"As participants could not leave their respective rooms for security reasons, a light cold lunch was provided," Jack Aubry said in an email, referring to the 2013 budget lockup. Lunch was accompanied by complimentary coffee, tea, juice and water.

Aubry said final estimates for such hospitality costs for Tuesday's lockup are not yet available. "However, it is expected that the size and scope of this year's events will largely mirror those of last year."

Last year's March 21 budget cost a total of $82,483 for hospitality, room rentals, audio-visual equipment, transportation and other items, for lockups in four separate locations.

This year's news media lockup starts at 9:30 a.m. ET in the downtown government conference centre, formerly a railway station.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show that three days before last year's budget lockup, Flaherty pre-approved hospitality costs of up to $18,540.

About 200 Finance Department staff and 270 others were to be provided free lunches worth about $28.50 each, for a projected total of $13,395. And 1,470 people were to be given free refreshments at about $3.50 each, for a total of $5,145.

Last year's lockups were held in four locales: the National Arts Centre, the Hampton Inn hotel and the Finance Department's own offices in downtown Ottawa, as well as the government conference centre.

The entire 2013 lockup bill was estimated at almost $111,000 — including $30,000 for security guards, movers, police and paramedics — but the final bill came in some $28,000 below projections.

Flaherty approved another large hospitality bill last August, for a two-day gathering of private-sector movers and shakers in Wakefield, Que.

The retreat cost taxpayers more than $16,000, with a hospitality bill of more than $6,800, including meals and wine.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

The Canadian Press

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