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CBC's 'At Issue' panel decides to take a few kicks at Kevin Page

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On October 9, 2008, five days before the federal election of that year, Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), issued a report entitled "The Fiscal Impact of the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan."

Last week, Huffington Post's Althia Raj, pinch-hitting for Andrew Coyne on CBC's The National's "At Issue" panel, said the timing of that Afghanistan report was a political mistake on the part of Page.

Raj also said Page, throughout his term, has acted too much as a "watchdog" on government fiscal policy -- something the 2006 legislation that created the Budget Office did not envision.

Raj did not say what she meant by the term "watchdog."

In ordinary parlance, a "watchdog" is a big, mean canine that scares away potential intruders.

It's not likely Huffington Post's Ottawa Bureau Chief meant that.

In journalistic shorthand "watchdog" has also come to mean one who scrupulously "watches" over some area of endeavour on behalf of others, usually the public.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions is sometimes referred to as the "banking watchdog."

The Competition Bureau of Canada is sometimes called -- you guessed it -- the "competition watchdog."

As for the PBO, the legislation that created it defines its mandate as to "provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation's finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy."

The PBO's "independent analysis" might, inevitably, be at variance with the government's own facts and figures, of course. It is hard to imagine that the framers of the legislation creating the Office did not foresee that possibility.

Would that make the PBO into a sort of "watchdog"?

Maybe yes; maybe no.

Page has strictly adhered to his legislated mandate

Kevin Page has certainly never used the phrase "watchdog" to describe his and his colleagues' work.

In fact, Page takes very seriously the literal role assigned to him by the 2006 amendment to the Parliament of Canada Act that created his job.

That role is to examine the fiscal position of Canada, in all its dimensions, in relation to the broader "trends in the Canadian economy," and -- based on that examination -- to provide all of the Members of Parliament, Government and Opposition alike, with the data and analysis they need to make sound decisions.

Reading over the PBO's many reports it is hard to find instances in which Page has exceeded his legal mandate. If Althia Raj can, it would very interesting to read her specific critique.

The one specific case Raj raised on The National was of political timing, not adherence to mandate. That is the case of the 2008 "cost of Afghanistan operation" report.

Raj suggested that Page "made a mistake" when he released that report less than a week before the 2008 election.

Page's office had started working on the Report more than three months earlier, long before anyone could know Prime Minister Harper would call a snap election. The publication date was almost certainly set at the time Page's colleagues started working on the project, and would have had to be changed to take account of the election campaign.

Whatever the case, in introducing the Afghanistan Report, Page pointedly said: "All party leaders have provided their consent for this study to be available for public debate during the current election period."

And so, if Althia Raj believes Page erred, it is, in fact, not because he was excessively political, but because he was not political enough.

Raj would have advised that the PBO keep his counsel. She would have him, in effect, make an extra effort to curry favour with the party in power -- even after the leader of that party had agreed to the report's release.

Is that sort of political kowtowing what Parliament intended when it created the PBO?

PBO in the spotlight because his term is up soon

On that same "At Issue" panel, pollster Bruce Anderson expressed the view that the Parliamentary Budget Office has somehow become the "Finance Department for the Opposition."

Again, the words of the PBO's legislated mandate clarify that point.

The legislation specifically states that the Budget Office should do studies based on requests from Parliamentary Committees or from individual members of Parliament. The Afghanistan study, for instance, was the result of a request by NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar.

Would Bruce Anderson be happier if MPs of all parties could not seek non-partisan information from officers of Parliament?

All of this chatter about the PBO -- too much of it obviously poorly informed -- is happening now because Page's term of office runs out in March, and the Government has scarcely lifted a finger in an effort to find a replacement. They have not even engaged an executive recruitment firm to flush out potential candidates.

The government's unseemly foot-dragging would seem to be the real story here, not some fanciful notion that Page has strayed from his mandate.

Dark tales of sabotage from within government

The government -- and that includes both the Cabinet and the senior public service -- can hardly wait to see Page walk out the door. His resolute commitment to carry out his mandate has not made him many friends in official Ottawa.

We'll have to wait for Page's departure to get the full story, if we ever do, but there are intimations from inside government of efforts to sabotage the PBO's work that go way beyond the very public stonewalling on PBO requests for basic information.

As for that well-known stonewalling, the law that created the PBO states, unequivocally, that the Budget Officer is "entitled, by request made to the deputy head of a department to free and timely access to any financial or economic data in the possession of the department that are required for the performance of his or her mandate."

"Free and timely access": those are pretty unambiguous words.

But when the PBO asked deputy ministers and agency heads for their spending plans -- and specifically for their plans to realize the cuts decreed by the 2012 Budget, he got resounding silence.

Page tried to convince and cajole the recalcitrant government officials -- which you can read about in a series of letters published on the PBO web site -- to no avail.

Finally, the PBO had no recourse but to seek the view of the Federal Court as to whether or not the requests he had made were within his legal mandate.

It is very doubtful that the Federal Court will pronounce itself before Page's term ends. At that point, the Budget Office may be under some form of interim leadership, if we're lucky.

Or it may be leaderless. And that seems to be just what the government wants.

What will the “At Issue” panel have to say then?  

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