The last instruction television producer Ken Lawrence left with Tom Michalak when he sent the cameraman to Finance Minister Marc Lalonde’s prebudget photo session last week was to look for a different angle. The 29-year-old cameraman did—setting off an uproar in the House of Commons, a panic in the finance department and dozens of calls for Lalonde’s resignation. Most incredible of all, the photographer’s sharp eyes—and even sharper zoom lens on his Hitachi FP-40 camera—forced Lalonde into an embarrassing $200-million revision in the government’s spending plans just hours before the minister presented his budget. Although the zest went out of the zoom later, Michalak, a loner who dresses in jeans and T-shirts, became a celebrity on Parliament Hill. He was dubbed “the $200million man.”
Information leaks, or alleged leaks, have become part of Ottawa’s budget ritual. In 1978 there was an uproar in Parliament when The Toronto Star published reports of plans for a sales tax rebate in then Finance Minister Jean Chrétien’s unreleased budget. In 1963 Walter Gordon offered his resignation after confirming that he had used three “outside” experts to help prepare his June budget. But never had a minister brazenly flipped through the budget in front of the cameras, asking with a grin, “Do you have any of those zooms on?”
In reality, the traditional prebudget photo call is something of a charade. In that spirit, Lalonde picked up a document lying on his desk and said, “This is the budget speech in case you are interested.” Michalak, who works for Hamilton television station CHCH, had moved behind Lalonde for an over-the-shoulder shot and focused on the budget typescript. “He was being careless, and I capitalized on the fact, but I had no bad intention,” said Michalak.
Later, as producer Lawrence screened the videotape, he realized, “Holy smoke,
I can read this stuff.” The freeze-frame of the French text clearly revealed that Lalonde was projecting a 1983-84 deficit of $31.2 billion and a four-year job creation package worth $4.6 billion.
Lalonde spent a sleepless night after the revelations on the evening news. As he knew, 60,000 copies of the budget were already on their way to 17 cities across the country under strictest security for release on budget night. “I was obviously floored, flabbergasted, shocked,” he said later. “I felt like the floor had gone from under me.”
When the House of Commons re
sumed sessions the next morning, the To ries were hungering for a showdown and called for Lalonde to resign. In Ottawa, if not else where, the controversy raged all day. Late in the afternoon Lalonde went home for a nap, leaving Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to hint at his intentions. A crafty grin creased the prime minister's face as he told MPs: "It is well-known that the minister of finance has been working on the budget for the past sev eral months. He has been improving his budget all the time. He may have decided to continue improving it. We shall see."
At 5:30 p.m., when journalists were finally I allowed their first look at the document, they discovered that the leaked figures remained. But at 6:45 p.m., 75 minutes before Lalonde’s speech, word came of a one-page insert. Lalonde had increased the original figures by $200 million. Later, he told reporters, “It is the fundamental right of the minister of finance to decide on the content of his budget right down to the last minute.” He added, “The whole issue of budget secrecy goes back to a tradition that I think is being overtaken by events.” Lalonde said that he learned two lessons from the leak: “never to trust the press”; and that zoom lenses are powerful devices, although in this case apparently not powerful enough to destroy a career. CAROL GOAR in Ottawa.
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