PBO faces moment of truth with Kevin Page's departure
Kevin Page, Parliamentary budget officer, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, April 26, 2012. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Julian Beltrame, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, January 21, 2013 4:03PM EST
OTTAWA -- The first day he took office as Canada's first budget watchdog Kevin Page knew he was effectively deep-sixing his 27-year-long career as a public servant.
He believed that if he was going to establish an effective, independent Parliament Budget Office, it would mean becoming a prickly and persistent thorn on the side of Stephen Harper's freshly elected government. There would be no welcome mat for him in the public service once his after his five-year term ends in March.
"I was told by different people, you are not going back to the Department of Finance, there won't be a public sector job," he said recently in an interview about his coming end of term. "I didn't have any illusions I'd be offered some kind of ambassador's post."
"I'm unemployed in two months."
For the past five years, Page, 55, has been more than a burr in the saddle of government. His detractors include the entire Conservative cabinet, who say he has exceeded the mandate set out for him when they created the job.
"I'd have to say with great respect, I believe that from time to time and on occasion the parliamentary budget officer has overstepped his mandate," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said last summer. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has been more direct, scoffing at his reports, accusing him of being partisan, and on one occasion, dismissing him as "unbelievable, unreliable and incredible."
His admirers -- and they span the political spectrum -- credit him and his bare-bones staff of about a dozen not only with speaking truth to power, but with creating the template for something wholly new in Ottawa: an authoritative financial reality check on government spending delivered in time to affect policy.
But with his term about to expire there is a real question whether that template will survive him.
"The question going forward is are we going to have musical chairs or are we going to have a PBO cliff," agrees Page.
"If it's musical chairs and someone from this office takes over it will be a seamless transition. If if they decide to hire somebody that has no experience or knowledge of the budget process, we'll go back to what existed before."
For Page, what existed before was a culture of secrecy that saw the Finance Department as the sole possessor and distributor of information on what programs cost.
Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch says it is critical that next PBO not be a "lapdog" of the government, a fear that is also shared by Gregory Thomas, the federal director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has written the prime minister asking that Page's term be extended beyond March 25 to give the government time to conduct a "thorough, transparent and competitive" search for a suitable replacement.
On Monday, Liberal critic John McCallum said he fears the government may leave the post vacant, or even dismantle the office altogether, given that it has yet to post the opening.
The government has been silent on how it is conducting the search, but not on Page.
Page says the new PBO will need tough skin. He concedes at the beginning he had doubts whether he had the backbone to do the job properly, but he took courage from the tragic death of his 20-year-old son in a train accident a year earlier.
"Losing a son, you bury a child, I think you learn there is no security," he explains. "Any point in time people can take away stuff that really matters, job doesn't really matter at the end of the day. I should be thanking my son Tyler for the courage."
Conacher and Thomas, hardly political soul-mates, both credit Page for creating an effective and efficient budget office. With about 12 employees and a $2.8 million budget, Canada's PBO can't hold a candle to the Congressional Budget Office in the U.S. -- 250 staffers and $45 million -- but it has nevertheless made its mark. So much so that Page's bare-bones outfit has been given the ultimate compliment from his international peers -- the OECD is coming to Ottawa next month for the fifth annual meetings of parliamentary budget officials.
"We're going to miss Page," adds Thomas, who pays the PBO the CTF high compliment of having been good value for taxpayers's money.
"If government would be more forthcoming with public information, Kevin Page and his crew would not be necessary. But it's been proven they've turned out to be very necessary to our democracy, almost indispensable."
The impact of the new PBO was evident after Page's first major report estimating the cost to Canada's purse of the decision to commit troops to Afghanistan -- an operation Ottawa refused to price.
He went on to disagree with his former colleagues in Finance about deficit projections, costs for the Conservatives law-and-order agenda and challenged the Defence Department's low-ball estimates for the F35 fighter jet purchase. The government's characterization of Old Age Security as "unsustainable" was dismissed by Page.
The PBO concept was the brainchild of Harper's Conservatives themselves when they were in opposition fuming about the unreliability of Liberal budget projections. Once in power, the Conservatives saw to it that the PBO served at the pleasure of government, which means Page and his successor can be fired at any time without need to show cause.
Page insists he merely followed where the numbers lead him. He expected government departments to take his reports and come back to show where he went wrong.
"It's not political, it's a number," he says. "We are not attacking priorities. We never said you should be in Afghanistan, you should not be in Afghanistan. We never said buy F35 or not the F35, but we provided a number."
That may be somewhat naive, says Conacher, who believes Page might have been better served if he sometimes couched his language more carefully, if not his conclusions.
Page believes the office needs to be redefined in law for its own protection. Most supporters say making the PBO answerable to the Library of Parliament, like some mid-level bureaucrat, is antithetical to its mandate as an independent watchdog.
Opposition parties, perhaps eyeing the day they might gain power and be saddled with a nettlesome PBO, initially raised few objections to the way the PBO was established.
Page says the office and its way of operations are well established. Now Canadians and MPs need to ask themselves a question, he adds.
"The big issue becomes does Parliament at large want this office. Do Canadians want this office," he says.
"What's in it for the government? Almost nothing, if they are focused on need to get legislation passed as quickly as possible. But if you think about Parliament's role ... I think that before we make these big decisions on planes or crime bills that are going to have an impact for decades, people are going to want to know that someone has done their homework?"
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