It’s that time of year again – tax time. A time when Canadians grumble and groan about the seemingly endless amount of tax we pay. Tax on this; tax on that - and most annoying of all, tax on tax.
Canada’s federal government spent $280-billion last year. That’s about $8,000 for every man, woman, and child in Canada.
So, how do we know they’re spending it wisely? How do we know we’re getting good value for our tax dollars? What accountability is there for government spending? According to the outgoing Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page: practically none.
W5’s Kevin Newman recently spoke with Page who said: “There is so much fear in this town (Ottawa). I’ve never seen this much fear before. Our institutions of accountability are completely under attack.”
Big numbers come with big government projects and during the 2006 federal election campaign, Stephen Harper announced the need for accountability in government spending.
Harper promised that, if elected, government departments would be held accountable through an independent agency – the Parliamentary Budget Office – or PBO – which would provide independent analysis of the country’s public finances and spending.
Career civil servant Kevin Page was appointed the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer in April 2008, and from day one found himself in conflict with the Conservative government that hired him.
“I don’t like it when we mis-spend money,” he told Kevin Newman. “I feel as a Canadian that I want my Member of Parliament to have all the information he or she needs to hold the government to account.”
Since then, the modest Thunder Bay native has been at loggerheads with senior cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minister, about the true costs of government spending.
Here is some of what the Parliamentary Budget Officer has revealed:
- When the Department of Defence estimated the long-term cost of the Afghanistan war at $8-billion, the PBO had a different count. Page said it could be as high as $18-billion.
- When the government wanted to spend $123-million on First Nations education, Page said they’d have to spend twice that to get the job done.
- When the government estimate the life cycle cost of an F-35 jet at $75-million, Page’s estimate was $128-million.
Renowned as the most high-profile financial ‘whistle-blower’ in Canadian history, Page has become a latter-day folk hero to the average taxpayer.
In Ottawa however, he’s a political outcast and some of the most powerful ministers in the Harper government have turned against him:
- John Baird said that he had “overstepped”;
- Tony Clement charged him with being “fixated”;
- Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, went on national television to chastise Page and accuse him of reaching beyond the term of his job description.
Page says criticism comes with the job. He is proud of the agency he’s built and believes an aggressive and transparent PBO is an essential part of the democratic process.
“I think what we’ve constructed here is consistent with what the OECD would say are the true principles for a legislative budget office,” he said.
“It may seem that we’ve created a lot of friction and controversy and disruption in Ottawa, but people need to adjust.”
For five tumultuous years, Kevin Page has run the PBO with a “take-no-prisoners” style. He promised financial accountability – and delivered. He also refused to back down from the many attempts to muzzle him. His mandate however, is now over and the government has chosen not to renew it.
Admired by taxpayers, feared by bureaucrats, criticised by politicians -- love him or hate him -- Kevin Page has brought unprecedented scrutiny to how Ottawa spends Canadians' tax dollars.
Watch W5 Saturday night @ 7 p.m. for more, and then check out Question Period on Sunday for additional material.