In two months Kevin Page’s term as parliamentary budget officer will end. He’s the fellow appointed under the Federal Accountability Act—the first piece of legislation the Harper government passed—to provide independent analysis of federal spending. He keeps disagreeing with the Harper government’s explanations of its spending. That’s actually his job. “It would be an independent body that would answer to Parliament and would not be part of the government,” Monte Solberg said in 2004, in the Conservatives’ opposition days, about the office Page wound up occupying. “It would not be a situation where the government could manipulate the figures to its own ends.”
Page has resisted the government’s attempts to manipulate the figures to its own ends. He said jet fighters would cost more than the government said they would. He said year-end deficits would last longer than Jim Flaherty said they would. He said the government had created a “structural deficit,” one that could be eliminated only through cuts or higher taxes. Flaherty disagreed for months, called Page every name in the book, until his department acknowledged Page had been right all along.
Flaherty has had just about enough of this crap. On the Global TV show West Block the other day, Tom Clark asked the finance minister whether Page’s office has been “a net benefit.” “Not yet,” Flaherty said.
“I think the idea . . . was that the parliamentary budget officer would kind of work like the congressional budget officer in the United States to report to the elected people in the House of Commons about how the government was doing in its budgeting. Sort of being a sounding board, a testing board.” Page, he said, has “kind of gone off that course . . . He’s been kind of wandering off and going in other places.”
This is fantasy. It’s hard to know where to start talking sense in the face of Flaherty’s claptrap. First, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports publicly to Americans, just as Page does to Canadians, on a vast range of issues, because budgeting is vast. In so doing, the CBO often disagrees with the President and with the claims of both parties’ congressional delegations. On Tuesday, both the Prime Minister and Treasury Board President Tony Clement said, repeatedly, that they’d like to see a “non-partisan” budget officer. They should reread their own scripts from 2004, when they understood that the best definition of non-partisan was a guy who would drive the government batty.
Second, in measuring “net benefit,” it’s handy to measure cost and then results. Page’s office has 17 people on the payroll, including the interns. The Congressional Budget Office has more than 80 in its budget-analysis division alone, and it has seven other divisions. Flaherty’s department has thousands, the Department of National Defence thousands more. Somehow Page and his crew managed to find a structural deficit and a jet-fighter cost overrun two years faster than all of them needed. He begins to look like a bargain.
Stephen Harper, Clement and Flaherty have all said they are “committed” to the institution of the parliamentary budget office and that there will be a successor in its top post once Page leaves. As for that person’s mandate, “I would like, personally, to see a more defined mandate,” Flaherty said.
It’s hard not to worry that that’s a genteel word meaning a straitjacket. There’s a major structural flaw in the budget office as currently designed: Page is subordinate to the librarian of Parliament and serves at the government’s pleasure rather than being a fully independent officer of Parliament like the auditor general. But as far as the topics he is given, under law, to study, there is no problem. His current mandate is to “provide independent analysis about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy.” In addition to that independent and self-initiated work, he is to answer questions from parliamentary committees or “by a member of either House,” whether Commons or Senate, about “the financial cost of any proposal.”
That’s a broad mandate. It’s supposed to be a broad mandate. It’s a check on power—a hedge, if we may speak frankly, against the possibility of tyranny. Conservatives in other countries are fond of that sort of thing. And while it sometimes pleases the government to protest that Page does the Opposition’s bidding, unfortunately, the plain text of his mandate says he is required to do their bidding, and that he would do the Conservatives’ too if they would simply bid him now and then.
When critics ask why Harper insists on being secretive or sometimes a bit of a cranky guy, Conservatives answer that he won three elections and a majority by being that way. True. But fair’s fair. Having an ornery, independent budget officer did not stop Harper, either. In 2005 Harper famously said he could “take a punch.” What Page provides isn’t even a punch. And when one day Conservatives are in opposition, they will want a serious man in the job Page has done so well. It’s time for the government to show some toughness and appoint a credible successor to Page. If they hate the next person too, they’ll know they’ve done it right. If they don’t, we’ll know they haven’t.
For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells
Thursday, January 31, 2013