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A peek inside the budget's cone of silence

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — First, they disconnect the phone lines. Then they lock the doors. And nobody gets out for 27 hours.

Ottawa goes to extreme lengths to shield the printing of the federal budget from prying eyes – a process that begins again this weekend in preparation for the huge stimulus package the Harper government will unveil on Tuesday.

“It's like Fort Knox,” one former Finance Department official said of the secrecy and security deployed to ensure that nothing like the 1989 leak of a budget pamphlet to Global TV reporter Doug Small ever happens again.

Twenty years after the embarrassing incident, the department refuses to discuss any aspect of printing the budget.

However, a copy of this year's publishing contract obtained by The Globe and Mail sheds light on the process.

The first rule of printing the budget, apparently, is that those paid for the job don't talk about it. At all. “The contractor shall not make public, in any way, information related to the project, including the existence of the project itself,” Finance warns in the contract.

Printing of the Jan. 27 budget comes together at the last minute. Contents will be delivered to publishers Sunday and Monday. Covers are printed on Monday morning, but it's early afternoon when security tightens like a vise.

At about 1 p.m. (ET) on Monday, employees at the printing plant are locked inside the facility, with Finance Department guards stationed throughout the premises to ensure nobody leaves. The printing and binding of the six or so different budget documents begins.

Employees won't be released from the plant until 4 p.m. (ET) on Tuesday, when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rises in the House of Commons to unveil the budget to MPs and the country.

Inside their sealed environment, printing plant staff get catered food and cots for rest, all under the watchful eye of Finance staff. Even the garbage is kept in a secure bin.

The federal government doesn't trust security safeguards alone. It also puts the printers and their staff under a microscope, requesting the names and birthdates of all senior officials and performing security screenings of all employees involved.

The Finance Department has detailed instructions about what kind of “security zone” it expects to see around the printing process, saying this must be designed “to prevent the possibility of forced entry, observation or eavesdropping.”

The department won't disclose where the budgets are printed in Ottawa's National Capital Region. But contracts released under federal disclosure laws show that the same two firms – with offices in an eastern Ottawa industrial park about seven kilometres from Parliament Hill – have published most of the documents over the past four years.

When the publishing is completed – and there are more than 72,000 copies of various budget documents to be printed – they are trucked with escort to a secure Finance warehouse in Gatineau, Que., across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister's Office has a draft copy of the document, as do senior Finance officials. Cabinet ministers are traditionally invited to the Finance Department on the Sunday the budget documents are delivered to learn about measures that affect their portfolios, sources said. They aren't given access to the rest of the document.

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