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Wanted: A friendly lapdog to be the new Parliamentary Budget Officer

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For the Conservatives, the gloves are off when it comes to Kevin Page, the very recently departed Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO).

While Page still had the job, the Conservatives held themselves back, a bit. They didn't openly say the PBO was a partisan and favoured the opposition.

That's their line now.

The Prime Minister used that line on Wednesday, when asked about the Federal Court decision on the PBO's request for information the government refused to share with him.

Prime Minister Harper yoked Page and the NDP together and claimed that the Federal Court case was entirely partisan.

An ominous promise to find someone 'non-partisan'

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton, Parliamentary Secretary to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, picked up Harper's line of attack on Thursday, in response to a question from the NDP's Finance Critic Peggy Nash.

Nash referred back to the Prime Minister's statement to the effect that the Court had rejected the PBO's "partisan" action. Nash said, "the Prime Minister surely either did not understand the Federal Court ruling on the Parliamentary Budget Officer or maybe he had only read the first two lines."

She then pointed out that, despite rejecting the PBO's request on narrow technical grounds, the Federal Court did, in fact, rule "that the government must give the information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Even the Conservatives' hand-picked interim budget officer understands this." 

The "handpicked interim officer" is Sonia L'Heureux, Librarian of Parliament, who has now formally requested all of the information that the government had withheld from Page.

She also issued a news release saying, in effect, that if the government balks she is prepared to go back to the Federal Court.

Nash's question of Saxton was simple: "Will the government now comply with this ruling? Yes or no?"

Here's the answer: "As my colleague knows, the Court rejected the partisan stunt by the leader of the NDP and Mr. Page. We will continue to report to Parliament through the normal means, through the estimates, the quarterly financial reports and the public accounts."

That latter part about "normal means" has been the government's position all along.

But then Saxton added a new twist, which, when you look at it carefully, could be quite an ominous sign.

"We look forward to appointing a new Parliamentary Budget Officer," he said, "who is a non-partisan, credible source of analysis for financial information." 

Sounds innocuous enough -- until you take into account the fact that the Interim Budget Officer is not letting the government off the hook.

A non-transparent selection process

Read between the lines of Saxton's answer and one gets the distinct impression that the Conservatives are not only happy to see the back of Page -- they are openly jubilant at that -- but that they expect to be sending L'Heureux back to the Library of Parliament very soon.

The current process for selecting a new PBO is anything but open and transparent.

The government has engaged an executive recruitment firm, but that is just about all we know.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair has pointed out that when the then-minority Conservative government selected Page there was significant consultation with the Opposition.

Now, he says, there is none of that, and the opposition finds that worrisome.

The government must be more than a little miffed that L'Heureux is resolutely -- in fact, almost enthusiastically -- continuing Page's efforts to seek detailed and comprehensive information on the overall impact of federal budget cuts.

But if the Prime Minister and Conservative MPs seem oddly cocky when addressing the question, it must be because they know they hold all the cards they need.

Notionally, the PBO reports to Parliament through the Librarian. But it is a loose and non-specific relationship. There will be nothing to prevent a new PBO from calling off the dogs almost the day he or she takes over, whatever the Librarian's views.

The Conservatives seem too comfortable and confident about all this, and Saxton pretty much let the cat out of the bag when he promised they'll appoint a new Budget Officer who is, by their lights, "non-partisan." Translation: we'll get someone who will not rock the boat.

When the NDP's Guy Caron asked a follow-up question on this, Saxton elaborated on the government's longstanding displeasure with the way Page did his job.

He argued that Page was effectively working only for the Opposition, an argument CBC TV panelist Bruce Anderson used when he described Page as a "research Bureau for the Opposition."

Specifically, Saxton complained that Page "would routinely ignore requests from Conservative MPs to estimate the financial cost of private member's bills that were before Parliament."

Indeed, with a tiny budget and small staff, and a mandate to do a huge job, Page knew that he could not afford to be distracted by the task of costing marginal, private member's initiatives. Those were, to all appearances, thrown at the PBO almost as a distraction, to keep him busy so that he wouldn't look at, for instance, the true cost of buying new fighter jets.

Page kept his eye on the ball, and did what his mandate required.

He was hired by the Harper government. This time, the government will do its best to make sure they get a very different sort of person. 

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