OTTAWA -- Canada’s parliamentary budget watchdog says that his office’s service of analyzing estimating the costs of political parties' election platform promises needs some reworking before the next campaign.

In a new report evaluating the costing of party platform proposals during the 2019 federal election campaign, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said that the independent analysis of campaign commitments “enhanced the credibility of the democratic process,” but changes should be made to the service.  

The report includes nine recommendations for improvement, seven of which the PBO describes as “administrative” and can be implemented under their current structure, though one change will require Parliament to improve amendments to legislation.

The PBO is suggesting that the legislation be tweaked to reinforce the obligation of the public service to assist in the PBO’s work and concerns about whether the Access to Information Act would apply, and to clarify that federal organizations that are not full departments are also covered. Contained within the report are several pages of proposed amendments to alter the Parliament of Canada Act accordingly.

As well, the PBO is recommending that, should his office have a shorter time frame to do its work due to an early election ahead of the next fixed election date, the cost of the proposals being submitted would have to exceed a certain amount before being eligible for analysis.

Giroux found that, within the 120 day window that proposals were able to be analyzed, there was a lull in the first month of the service because of a dearth of party submissions, followed by a surge closer to voting day that required some negotiations with the parties about how much time was spent analyzing each proposal and which items should be prioritized. He is recommending that the way time was allocated be altered to indicate that available resources will be reduced as time passes.

Between June and October 2019, the PBO costed 216 proposals from political parties, though only 115 from 5 different parties were ultimately published. Giroux said demand for the service was nevertheless double their estimates.

The PBO report states that the office divided its resources equally among the parties, which translated to 2,600 hours of analyst time for each recognized party. As well, each party’s proposal was anonymized before being scrutinized.

“Our election costing service allowed Canadians to have a better idea of the cost of election promises. From that point of view, it helped increase transparency for the benefit of voters, which enhanced the credibility of the democratic process,” said Giroux in a statement.

The program was run federally for the first time in Canada this fall, and was modelled after similar programs in the Netherlands and Australia.

Giroux’s office was granted the ability to conduct these costing studies through the 2017 budget implementation bill. When it was launched it was billed as a way to improve Canadians’ ability to make more informed choices at the ballot box and increase trust in the political process by being more transparent about how various politicians plan to spend their money.

The idea was to scrutinize the parties’ policy ideas in a similar way to how they typically evaluate government spending plans, and report publicly on their findings.

The review of the process included consultations with political parties, journalists, public servants and academics.