Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Are the Conservatives trying to kill the independent Parliamentary Budget Office?

| January 21, 2013
Are the Conservatives trying to kill the independent Parliamentary Budget Office?

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Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair has written the Prime Minister to ask that he keep the current Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page, in his job until a successor is named and ready to take office. 

Page's term runs out on March 25th, in barely more than two months, and it appears the Government may be playing a passive-aggressive game in choosing his successor. In the normal course of events the process to find a successor should be well underway by now.

But, in this case, almost nothing at all has happened yet.

As Mulcair notes in his letter: "no notice of vacancy has yet been placed in the Canada Gazette concerning his replacement ... no clear indications have been given by your government on the search for the next PBO."

The legislation that created the PBO gives the job of recruitment to the Librarian of Parliament, currently Sonia L’Heureux. Folks in the know in Ottawa report that despite prodding and encouragement from the PBO itself L’Heureux has done very little to get that process going.

In fact, it seems she has not even taken the preliminary step of engaging a recruitment firm.

A Conservative creation modeled on the American Congressional Budget Office 

It was Stephen Harper's own government that created the Parliamentary Budget Office, in 2006, as part of the much-heralded Federal Accountability Act.

The PBO's stated mandate was to "provide independent analysis to the Senate and the House of Commons on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy." 

There were brave words, in 2006, that the Parliamentary Budget Office would become Canada's equivalent to the United States' much respected, and occasionally feared, Congressional Budget Office. 

But even before the legislation was finalized, the Government appeared to have second thoughts about a creating an independent source of economic insight and analysis. In the fine print of the Accountability Act the Conservatives and senior bureaucrats sought to limit the effectiveness of the PBO.

As defined by the legislation, the Budget Officer serves "at the pleasure of the Prime Minister," who has the power of appointment or dismissal without Parliamentary oversight or participation. And the PBO does not even have full agency status, on par with, say, the Auditor General's Office. The PBO is deemed a mere adjunct to the Library of Parliament.

'Don't bother yourself with serious stuff Mr. PBO -- and don't get in our face!'

One gets the impression that, nearly six years ago when Page took office, Harper and his colleagues hoped the newly-created PBO would keep well out of the limelight and limit himself to innocuous roles such as costing obscure Private Members' Bills.

The government assigned minimal resources to the Office -- a budget, for instance, of considerably less than three million dollars per year -- and put administrative barriers in the PBO’s way when he sought to carry out his duties.

It even tried to prevent the Budget Office from launching its own website.

Of course, the friction between the Harper Government and the PBO is now well known.

Kevin Page and his colleagues have provided trenchant and highly pertinent analysis of the proposed acquisition of F-35 aircraft.

They put out an independent analysis of the fiscal sustainability of Old Age Security payments very much at variance with Harper's claim that this program would become unaffordable over the short to medium term.

The PBO's numbers showed quite the opposite.

Why Page is not every senior bureaucrat's favourite person

 On the contentious First Nations file, more than three years ago the PBO published a highly critical report on the funding of Aboriginal reserve schools and other educational capital assets.

Page's office calculated what the cost to build necessary new schools and refurbish existing ones would be, throughout Canada, based on such technical factors as capital depreciation. The PBO then compared that figure to the Aboriginal Affairs Department’s own spending plans.

The result of this analysis: the PBO determined that the Government was undershooting the needed investment by a large margin. It reported that the Department’s “plans for capital expenditure are under-funded to the tune of between $169 million in the best case, and $189 million in the worst-case scenario annually. . . [The Department] underestimates the likely expenditures by. . . more than 58%.”

That elicited an angry letter of response from the Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister, Michael Wernick, who suggested, among other things, that the PBO should have conducted interviews with regional officials of his department. Wernick also tried to make the case that his Department’s “Capital Management System” was able to “capture results of technical inspections” of schools, and he asked the PBO to revise its report.

Page and his staff did not back down.

Instead, they doubled-down and pointed out that it was not their job to gather internal, regional information that the Department itself should have, and that the data on inspections as provided by the Department was “incomplete, inconsistent and difficult to understand”.

The PBO added, for good measure, that the Department’s Capital Management database contained none of the information Wernick claimed in his letter. In the PBO’s words, there were “no results of technical inspections, as you indicated.”

If you want to know why Kevin Page may not be the most popular guy among Ottawa’s senior officials, look no further than that revealing exchange of letters.

Government stonewalling on spending freeze details

The most recent conflict between Page’s PBO and the Government may be the biggest of them all.

The PBO has had to go to court in an effort to get Deputy Ministers and Heads of Agencies to share detailed information on the Government’s planned spending freeze.

Austerity, Page has pointed out on numerous occasions, is the Government’s centerpiece fiscal policy and the PBO’s job is to provide parliamentarians from all parties with a non-partisan analysis of the potential impacts of all major fiscal initiatives.

The Government’s stonewalling in providing the PBO with needed, detailed information on planned spending cuts makes it very difficult for Page and his colleagues to give Parliament the best advice as to the potential real-world consequences of Government policies.

In a recent report on the big question of Government staffing costs (an over $40 billion annual expenditure) the PBO makes a brave effort to provide parliamentarians with a sense of how these costs have evolved over time, and where they will go in the future. But the PBO’s December 2012 report on public service compensation is forced to conclude:

“Parliament does not have, at present, access to government plans and reporting mechanisms required to assess and monitor the progress expected from changes announced within recent consecutive budgets. . .[T]he multiyear plans to reduce 19,200 [positions] as announced in Budget 2012 have not been provided, [and] Parliament does not, at present, have access to the allocation for reductions to [positions]within departments and agencies by program activity as requested by the PBO. As such, parliamentarians do not have the resources with which to determine areas of priority for resource distribution and the effects of the distribution on services provided to Canadians.”

Did the government hope Canadians would forget about the PBO?

Kevin Page has tried to do an honest job, to fulfill his mandate, and to provide the members of Parliament with the tools they need to do their jobs responsibly. The government has not appeared to welcome his dedication to openness, transparency, and -- frankly -- the truth.

Now, Mulcair is trying to smoke the government out on its plans for the PBO.

One suspects those plans might be to allow the PBO to flounder without leadership for a while, or, perhaps, to appoint a pliable lapdog who will stop all the “meddling” Page has initiated.

The Liberals have joined the Official Opposition NDP in its effort to get the government to come clean on its PBO plans.

It will be interesting to see what sort of tactics the Conservatives resort to on this issue. They must have thought of something -- or were they hoping nobody would remember that Page's mandate ends in March?

 

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