A BLACK PERIOD AHEAD FOR THE PARLIAMENTARY BUDGET OFFICE
On March 25th, Kevin Page will end his five-year term as the first Parliamentary Budget Officer. Mr. Page never expected to be the Parliamentary Budget Officer, nor had he actively sought the position He had worked in several federal departments, including the Department of Finance in the Economic Analysis and Fiscal Forecasting Branch and in the Privy Council Office as Deputy Head of the Planning and Priorities Division. He had a reputation as being a solid economist, a dependable professional, and a nice guy. He expected to work out his days in the government and retire to his home town of Thunder Bay. And then everything changed.
As Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Harper had expressed his frustration with the Liberal Government’s consistently underestimating the budgetary surplus. In the 2006 election, the Conservative Party ran as a Party committed to accountability and transparency. If elected Prime Minister, Mr. Harper promised that would be no more inaccurate forecasts, because he would create an independent agency, “Ensuring truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority” to hold the government to account in its budget forecasting and its spending estimates.
As the saying goes “Be careful what you wish for” or if you are a politician “Be careful what you promise.”
Once elected, the Government began to have second thoughts over its promise to create the Parliamentary Budget Office. How independent should it be? What should its mandate be? In the end, the government opted for a Parliamentary Budget Officer that would be appointed by the Prime Minister. This meant that the Parliamentary Budget Officer worked at “the pleasure of the Prime Minister” and could be dismissed at any time, without cause. This created an immediate conflict of interest with the Parliamentary Budget Officer accountable to the very person who appointed him and could fire him. It was decided that the Parliamentary Budget Officer would report to the Head of the Library of Parliament, who in turn would “control” the budget and work of the Parliamentary Budget Office. The mandate for Parliamentary Budget Office was fairly broad, but the Head of the Library would have the responsibility of interpreting and enforcing it. Everyone at the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council and the Department of Finance were happy.
When Mr. Page accepted the job, he had no idea what he was getting into. But he was determined to make the Parliamentary Budget Office a credible, professional and transparent organization. He didn’t expect the depth and breadth of the opposition that he would get from the Government in setting up the Parliamentary Budget Office. There was opposition to his budget; opposition to his hiring of staff; and opposition to how he conducted his work. He expected professional disagreements, but he never expected this degree of interference and obstruction that the Government would put in his way.
His mandate was to help Parliament hold the Government accountable on the “state of the nation’s finances, the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction”.
Mr. Page has established, in his term as Parliamentary Budget Officer, a credible and professional organization, despite the efforts of the Government to undermine his mandate. He has not been afraid to tackle controversial issues and to defend them despite attempts by the Government to discredit him professionally.
With limited resources (a budget of only $2.8 million and a staff of only seventeen), the Parliamentary Budget Office has provided Parliament and Canadians with credible and professional advice on a wide range of important policy issues. The Office has released over 150 analytical reports, including reports on the federal government’s economic and fiscal projections, the sustainability of the nation’s finances, its spending estimates, the costing of proposed government programs and private members’ bills (e.g., the cost of the Afghan War; the cost of the F-35 fighter jets, the Truth in Sentencing Act, etc.). Most have been subject to peer review and validated by third parties. Instead of engaging in professional debate about these studies, the Government has largely dismissed them without justification. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has attempted to force the Government to be transparent and accountable to Parliament.
But what will happen after March 25th? What will the Government do with the Parliamentary Budget Office?
The future of the Parliamentary Budget Office will be determined, in part, by its past success and, in part, by the desire of the Government to “de-claw” the Office. The current impasse between the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Government is the result of a clash between the Government’s business model, based on a lack of transparency, and accountability; non-evidenced based decision-making; and hostility to public debate and discussion; and, a Parliamentary Budget Officer business model with the exact opposite principles. Indeed this clash of business models applies to the Government as a whole. What is striking about this clash of business models is that it did not exist in pre Liberal and Conservative governments.
The fact is the Government helped make Kevin Page the media “celebrity” he is. If the Government had adopted a business model based on transparency, accountability, evidenced based policy, public discussion and debate, then Kevin Page would not likely be in the spotlight that he is today.
Most observers agree that the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be appointed by Parliament, not the Prime Minister. This will not happen
Most observers agree that the Parliamentary Budget Office should have a larger budget and staff. This will not happen.
Most observers would like that the government to acknowledge the contributions of the Parliamentary Budget Office to policy discussion and debate. This will not happen
What then is likely to happen?
What is likely to happen is that a “black period” will descend on the Parliamentary Budget Office. There will be no immediate replacement for Kevin Page. We expect that the head of the Library of Parliament will be asked to “act” on an interim basis, as the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office, until a replacement is found. That could take some time. The Parliamentary Librarian is just getting around to selecting an executive search firm.
The Government does not want an independent Parliamentary Budget Office. It does not want a repeat of Mr. Page. The Government wants the next Parliamentary Budget Officer to interpret his/her mandate as the Government interprets it. Indeed the Government will rewrite the mandate to make sure of this. This has become quite clear in recent comments made by the Minister of Finance. Minister Flaherty feels that the Parliamentary Budget Office should be a “sounding board” for Parliament. This idea of a “sounding board” is a far cry from its current mandate, however it is interpreted. It is a far cry from what the Conservatives promised in their 2006 election campaign and in its rhetoric in establishing the Office once in power.
Who would want this job? What will the job description look like? How will the mandate be worded? What professional qualifications will be required?
Mr. Page has set a very high bar for any successor.
We are not at all optimistic about the future of the Parliamentary Budget Office. It is clear from Minister’s Flaherty’s comment that the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Office will be changed. The Office will likely be fully assumed within the Library of Parliament with restrictions on what studies it can undertake and how these studies are to be made public. Under such a scenario, many of the current staff will move on. The ability of the Parliamentary Budget Office to challenge the Government will be compromised. Reports will not get done and the Parliamentary Budget Office we know will probably quietly disappear.
Parliament and Canadians will be the worst off for it.