Kevin Page nearly quit in 2009 -- and has 'no intention' of running for public office
Published Sunday, March 17, 2013 1:28PM EDT
The following is a transcript of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page’s interview with Question Period.
Kevin Newman: Give me some adjectives to describe what the job’s been like for you?
Kevin Page: Scary, at times -- releasing a report on Afghanistan. Exhilarating, at times -- getting calls from people in your industry the day after the Auditor General report comes out saying, ‘Guess what?’ when you were being criticized a year prior on your costing of the F-35 fighter plane, the government was actually providing the same numbers, actually larger to cabinet but weren’t showing them to Canadians and Parliament, even though they were requested.
Were they trying to shut you down, or just intimidate you?
Well, I think it was a bit of both. I mean, it definitely was intimidation. They definitely saw a window of opportunity to shut it down in 2009. Cut your budget by a third, saw in that committee report that all your work has to be confidential. Which goes against any kind of work to be done by any legislative budget officer anywhere in the world, so to me that was both intimidation -- basically to get me to quit.
Did you think about it?
I did. Yeah actually, I came very close. When that joint report was released, it was supported by the senate, I remember going home, I went to my wife and said, ‘I have no clients.’
And so, yeah my wife said, no you cannot quit. And some of the people in the office said, ‘We gotta keep going’ …. I drafted an action plan … but I will explain how I will not do anything confidential.”
Some of the criticism you received from ministers has been quite pointed. Did you think it was personal?
Often what we got from, you know, the fall of 2008 onwards is yeah, this is academic or you’re unbelievable, this is unreliable. You’re changing your mind. So in a sense at that level, it sounds very personal.”
It has been a tumultuous five years building the Parliamentary Budget Office – with him every step of the way has been his wife Julie. They knew going in the acrimony would end his 30-year career in the public service -- that he was likely to make enemies, and he did in some of the most powerful cabinet ministers in town.
(To Julie Page) Did you feel protective of him?
He handles himself. He doesn’t need my protection. He’s pretty stubborn, and tough. But no, it was upsetting. I think the main thing that’s upsetting is someone who’s in the public eye and people make assumptions about what sort of person that is, why he’s doing it -- that he’s enjoying being in the media and all those sorts of things. Most people he didn’t even want the job in the first place. All those people that went to the interview had to be talked into it.
The Parliamentary Budget Office was designed to challenge executive authority by giving MPs their own set of financial estimates for spending the Cabinet was approving. Page took it a step further, insisting his work be made public to influence policy debate -- nowhere more directly than when he estimated the cost of the Afghan war.
And then we’re in the middle of an election campaign. You’ve completed a report which says the cost as you know it to be for the Afghan Mission was almost $10 billion higher than the prime minister was campaigning on at the time. You know this town: When there’s an election on, there’s a lid on it.
Nobody says a thing. And yet you had to decide whether it was in the public interest.
Tell me more about what those discussions were like in this office.
Difficult, and we weighed it. When you look at it from a political perspective, we saw losses. We saw on one side if we didn’t release the report we could be accused of looking partisan. You know, perhaps we’re doing something to favour the government. If we released the report we thought the government would assume we’re punching them right in the nose. And what is the public interest? The interest is transparency, and you know we had not seen a costing of Afghanistan at that time and were about to lose our 100th soldier.
The Conservative cabinet that hired him probably underestimated page’s stubborn streak. Growing up in Thunder Bay he was the son of a mechanic. He coaches hockey where the mantra for his peewee players is “Work hard. Never give up.” And he has suffered terrible personal loss. Two year before being offered the PBO job, his 21-year old son Tyler was killed late one night by a train.
How did you, I mean this is going to be a silly question, but how did you keep going?
Well, I mean you try to find meaning in that suffering. You’re suffering and you try to… what do you do with that suffering? If you were given this opportunity to build something for the country -- an institution that hadn’t existed before -- and then all of a sudden there’s meaning, and then surrounding yourself with just an amazing crew of people I get to work with on a daily basis.
That really helped -- even when the job got difficult and there were, you know, people were reacting negatively to the work we were doing, the costing of the war or even some of our economic and fiscal projections.
And then it got you know critical, you raised, raised the point earlier, it got personal and I think, I hope I rose above that part of it and as you say, you have to be very professional. You talk about the products.
Did it take away the fear?
Yes I think it takes away the fear of, you know, that maybe they’ll take your job away. After you’re going through that kind of experience as well, that’s not so important really -- I’ll find another job.
Julie Page: I don’t know if this is how Kevin sees it but when you lose your child you sort of, you have to get up every morning and forgive yourself for still being here, and then you have to go on and face the day and you try to make that a decision. And I think this job gave him a lot of opportunity to try and make those right decisions, those better decisions.
This last week on the job, Kevin Page was invited to speak to Carleton University’s public service program -- a man at the end of his career telling the next generation they have a bright future, because things have never been worse in Ottawa.
Kevin Page said at various times that the public service is under attack:
"For me, one of the reasons why it’s the best time to be a public servant is because in my 30-plus years I’ve never seen weaker public sector leadership."
"There is so much fear in this town. It’s... I’ve never seen this much fear before."
"I would say our institutions of accountability are completely under attack. Under attack like I’ve never seen before."
"We are tearing down parliament right now. That’s my personal opinion. That’s why you stand up. This is the time to be a public servant. It’s a time to build, guess what? This is your opportunity. This is your time to build."
You’re going to be looking for work now. Under what circumstances would you consider running for political office?
I have no intention of running for political office. My wife would, you know, after 30 years, I think that would be it for her.
You used the word “intention” though, which is one of those code words around here that says, well, he’s not really saying no.
I’m not a politician.
You couldn’t be loyal to one party?
That would be a problem for me.