Why Kevin Page is not going away

Now an unofficial watchdog, the former PBO has no plans to stop asking tough questions

by Aaron Wherry

Photograph by Blair Gable

At his going-away party in March, Kevin Page, the first and so far only parliamentary budget officer (PBO), was presented by his staff with the parting gift of a T-shirt emblazoned with three words: “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.” These were adjectives Finance Minister Jim Flaherty used a year earlier to describe Page’s work after the budget officer had suggested, contrary to the government’s argument, that the Old Age Security system was sustainable.

If that was one epitaph for the Kevin Page era, another had been offered a month earlier, in February, when NDP MP Pat Martin addressed a meeting of OECD budget officers in Ottawa. Page, Martin said, “might well be the best friend the Canadian taxpayer has in his dogged determination and relentless pursuit of the truth in some of the most important files of our time.”

Those two wildly divergent assessments speak to the promise and frustration the first five years of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer under Page entailed. But in the wake of his exit four months ago, there remains only more uncertainty about what—and who—comes next. The battles swirling around the office are many. There is still no permanent successor to Page. That hasn’t stopped his former staff from clashing with the government over the office’s mandate and right to demand information. And while Page continues to claim the principle of parliamentary accountability, he’s himself facing accusations of being an undignified saboteur of the PBO who has done more harm than good to the place.

As the office he built carries on without him, Page, the chatty, earnest bean-counter, now occupies an office at the University of Ottawa. “I didn’t honestly think I’d get a job in Ottawa,” he says, adding he considered going into landscaping. “I thought maybe I’d burned too many bridges.” Instead, this fall he’ll teach a couple of undergraduate courses, one in political studies, another in economics. But Page’s bigger plan, one that the university supports, is to establish an institute that will, like the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, study the math of public policy. In a statement announcing the appointment, Allan Rock, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, said Page would be a boon to the school’s research team. “His experience in the federal public service will be a major asset in developing the public finance and governance projects we have planned.”

The model for what Page and the university have in mind is the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the United Kingdom, a macroeconomic think tank that says its aim is to “promote effective economic and social policies by understanding better their impact on individuals, families, businesses and the government’s finances.” Launched four decades ago, it relies heavily on government funding through the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council.

At this stage details of when Page’s institute will be up and running, and even the business model for how it will be funded, have not been released. But Page estimates it will cost roughly $2 million to operate annually, compared to the $2.8-million budget he worked with at the PBO. He says the institute will examine questions about health care, tax reform and climate change as they relate to public policy, and in that way it will not be all that different from the PBO itself. At the least, given Page’s high-profile battles with the Harper government, any reports the institute produces will be keenly read and reported on by the Ottawa press gallery.

The move, however, has earned Page criticism. Last week Philip Cross, the former chief economist at Statistics Canada, penned a scathing opinion piece in which he accused Page of setting up a “shadow PBO” that will siphon off senior staff from his old office. “That Page cannot see the conflict of interest in undermining the PBO selection process while promoting his own parallel institute at the University of Ottawa suggests he has an ethical blind-spot,” Cross wrote. For his part, Page says he wants to see a strong PBO supported by think tanks providing vital information to help MPs make decisions. “There’s a big need here,” he says. “Parliamentarians, for the most part, don’t have information when they vote.”

That’s not to say the PBO, in Page’s absence, has been standing still. After Page’s exit in March, government House Leader Peter Van Loan named parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux to be the interim PBO. Since then she’s led Page’s former office as it continues the work and the battles that began under him. In recent weeks the PBO indicated it would begin filing access to information requests as part of a months-old dispute with the government over information related to spending cuts included in the 2012 budget. That dispute dates back to last November when NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked the PBO to perform an analysis of the cuts. Having previously tried and failed to obtain the relevant information, Page asked the Federal Court to clarify what he was entitled to demand from the government, but the court dismissed the matter as “hypothetical,” on the grounds that Page had not yet asked for the information in question.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper subsequently dismissed the court case as a “partisan action,” but in short order, L’Heureux sent letters to 84 government departments seeking information in regards to Mulcair’s request. Now, depending on how the government responds to the access to information requests, the dispute is likely destined to return to the court for a resolution.

Ultimately L’Heureux will have to be replaced with a permanent budget officer. But the selection process has been subject to suspicion and criticism from the start. Page has questioned why the identities of the members of the selection committee charged with recommending possible candidates to the government were kept confidential. When it was uncovered that the chief of staff to Van Loan was a member of the committee, Page said the process should start over. “There has been political interference at the first stage,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s at the time.

But in this area too, Cross, now the research and editorial coordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, has taken Page to task for how he has conducted himself. In his op-ed, Cross accused Page of sabotaging the office by recklessly commenting on the selection process and undermining the authority of his eventual replacement. In an interview Cross also said Page was needlessly adversarial during his time as the PBO. “Being a bull in a china shop, that clearly has not worked,” Cross said in an interview. “Trouble is going to find you without you looking for it. It’s just not the way civil servants behave.”

Asked about his tone, Page wonders what he could have done differently. “Honestly, would it have helped if I was more delicate around costing wars or crime bills or fighter planes or Old Age Security? When the Prime Minister said Old Age Security isn’t sustainable, is there a nicer way to say, well, actually, we did analysis, it is sustainable?” Page acknowledges that he burned bridges with the public service, but says that “we pushed them to be more transparent on behalf of Parliament and Canadians. It was the job.”

One Conservative strategist, who spoke anonymously, notes the idea of a budget officer was easier to propose while in opposition than to live with while in government. The strategist likens what ensued to a “marriage that got out of control” with blame to be assigned to both Page and the government.

For all Page’s concerns that the office is being unwound, the next PBO could still prove a valuable resource. And, eventually, a short walk from Parliament Hill, Page’s new institute will add to the information available to parliamentarians as they hold the government to account. “Does it necessarily mean we’re going to get better decision-making? No. But is it better for democracy? Absolutely,” Page says. “And I do think you’re going to get better decisions when you put this information in front of people.”

All of which sounds familiar to anyone who’s been following Page’s career over the past five years. And all of which, as his own time on Parliament Hill demonstrated, is easier said than done. “But,” Page concedes, “I don’t think change happens easy.”




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Why Kevin Page is not going away

  1. I am intrigued by Cross’s keen analysis of emerging situation.

    “Seeing eminently-qualified candidates for the PBO hastily withdraw their application, when faced with the prospect of a shadow PBO across town siphoning-off the senior staff, may simply be too much for this fledging office to overcome.”

    His argument highlights two essential truths. 1)There are at most a handful (perhaps a dozen) individuals in the country with the mathematical skills to add & subtract large numbers carefully. With a non-existent, unfunded yet proposed Institute going up (at some unspecified time) paying double digit salaries at the great UofO all of those people will flee the public service (with its lousy security & pension plan) to work at a University on soft money. 2) PBO’s like Auditor Generals, Central Bankers etc are always going to be people of delicate temperments who need stable, nurturing work environments. Indeed, any sense of challenge is likely to drive away all of the most qualified applicants leaving only those poor sods with out-sized senses of duty, commitment and determination.

    Indeed, this type of problem is rampant in Canadian governance and we all pay the price. For example, there is no doubt that all of the brilliant, serious, adult thinkers in the Conservative movement have flocked to the Frazier Institute with the second tier going to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. While this has enabled those two august institutions to retain their preeminent status, it has limited the staffing of the PMO to kids in knickers. Tragic really, but perfectly captured by Cross’s insights.

    • You are joking right?

      Heil Harper.

    • Fraser Institute please, it’s not a TV show.

  2. This comment was deleted.

    • Yes indeed…Allan (thick as a) Rock. Birds of a feather…

    • Party above country forever and always, CPC supporters.

      • Again, you don’t seem to understand why Page is NOT good for any government, whether is an NDP government, a LIberal government, etc.

        • He’s not good for a government of any stripte THAT DOESN’T WANT IT’S CITIZENS TO KNOW HOW ITS MONEY IS SPENT. This is clearly true of the CPC, I hope it is less true of the other two.

          If you cannot grasp this you are an idiot.

          • Page isn’t there to tell you how the country’s money is being spent. Page is there to offer a sober second look at the budgets. He’s an economist, not an accountant.

          • You are such an ignorant person.

          • YELL SOME MORE AND MAYBE YOU’LL START MAKING SENSE!

            What unknown spending did Page ever reveal? None.

  3. Page shot himself in the foot and I have no sympathy for the man. The job was set up to inform Parliament of the costs associated with programs in the budget as a resource, not a partisan whip. The other descriptor “inform parliament”, not the press. Page immediately ran to the Liberal friendly media who started treating him like a rock god in their quest to “get Harper”. There should be guidelines regarding media interaction with our so called “independent” officers like Page and Carney. And yes, the PBO quest to have access to department budgets is political. The PBO is supposed to be looking at overall budgets as they are economists. They are not there to troll through department budgets looking to see where the 10% cut was made. Mr. Mulcair is highly interested in that so he can get his base agitated if there are job cuts or program cuts. What a shame if they wasted a pile of money on finding that the cuts were in stationery spending.

    • We’ll see whether the courts see it your way or as Mr. Page saw it. There is so much spin that comes out of the mouths of the government (any government but the one we have now is particularly bad) that we need someone we can count on to set the record straight. Page was sacrificed for speaking truth to power.

      • Yes, but most people don’t realize there is a difference between Harper and “the government”. Harper is merely the PM. The government is a group of silos run by department heads who are very jealously guarding their budget details as that is their governance. Page is only supposed to be informed on the overall big picture. Basically Page has gone to war with both Harper and the civil service but the media want you to think it’s all Harper all the time.

        • It’s not “the government” it’s the “Harper government”. Remember god changed it.

    • A “rock god”, I like that!

    • The job has always been–from inception and before Page’s appointment–to review the budgets for a reality check. So, “the PBO quest to have access to department budgets is political” has to be the most assinine statement ever made. How do you look at an overall budget for clarity and reasonableness, if you don’t look at where the overall budget got its numbers? I work for accountants and we often lump different accounts together. My Office Expenses account is made up of all the other accounts like Postage, Printer Toner, Paper, etc. If you can’t look at the postage budget, based on what was spent in prior years coupled with known postage rate increases and any special mailings you intend to undertake or previous special mailings you won’t be doing again, how can you say whether the Office Expenses budget is realistic?

      • Because you are already paying people to do that. The department budgets are approved by the department heads and then signed off by an appropriate official further down the line. I don’t work for the feds so I can’t tell you exactly what the protocol is. If there is, say a 10% reduction in spending required, surely you trust the people you are already paying $100,000+ to apply the reduction properly. If you don’t trust your department heads then you have a problem. Don’t forget these are life long civil servants, not Harper apppointees.

  4. I think Page is going to find out quickly that the Liberals and NDP (and the media)were only interested in what he had to say when he was criticizing the Conservatives, and they didn’t have to pay for his loudmouthed narcissism.

    The Liberals and the NDP and the so-called progressive left already have their own think tanks. They certainly aren’t going to pay for one that purports to truth in budgeting.

    • Oh yeah! He’ll become persona non-grata with any government.

  5. Ah,yes. MacDonald-Laurier. First came to my attention when
    one J. Flaherty was spotted cheerleading at a fundraiser for it.
    Funny,that.
    But it’s all good. Gawd knows we don’t have nearly enough
    sinecures that provide income support for conservative bench
    players. Poor dears.
    I wish it every success. Anything to prevent Crowley moving back
    to Nova Scotia.

  6. Screw Sun news, give this guy his own channel.

    • What an ignorant comment! You need to do your homework and find out why most bureaucrats are so opposed to him in the first place. Is not about Party affiliation.

    • Paid for entirely by taxpayers, I’m sure. Just what we need is more tax dollars being spent on leftist gibberish. Isn’t the CBC bad enough for you?

  7. Cross just doesn’t like to see any think tank. Page’s think tank will have more credibility than Cross’. I can’t see the rationality of Cross’ criticism of Page. Page has conducted himself very well despite the relentless attacks from the government. How many public servants will be able to stand firm under such duress. That Page’s institute will be an option for those who wish to quit the PBO, that’s good news. I am looking forward to donate to support a good cause.

  8. Page will end up running for the Lieberals in the next federal election

    “In a statement announcing the appointment, Allan Rock, the university’s
    president and vice-chancellor, said Page would be a boon to the school’s
    research team.”

    Allan Rock, former federal Liberal Minister responsible for the long gun registry fiasco is merely giving Page something to do to fill time until late next year.

  9. I’m not trying to change the channel here, but has the CPC given any indication where that $3.5 billion, the missing money from Flanagan’s budget estimates, has gotten to?

  10. Ugh, how unfortunate! Biggest mistake Harper Government ever made, appointing such a narcissistic, an egomaniac.

    • Claire,
      Sorry if you’re upset with the Harper government appointing Kevin Page to hold them to account, but , the problem was that Kevin just didn’t turn out to be the Yes-Man that the Prime Minister thought he’d be. In other words, he din’t play by the Conservative playbook on how to fudge the budgetary numbers so that it looked like they were balancing the country’s books. And if anyone fits the description of being narcissistic, egomaniacal, and idiotic, you should look to the one person responsible for having parogoged parliament twice, micro-managed the entire CPC process in his image, and stuffed the Senate, which he earlier claimed should be reformed, with political cronies and party bag men.

      • I liked Page and he did think outside the box. Yet early on it showed he thought he knew better. He was not voted in. Single departments like Oas is sustainable if we lived in a vacuum and other competing needs be it health costs for those same seniors were not also going to go up. Any person with narrow views can beat up on any Government of any political stripe and win the battle. It was not his job to say money is best spent here or this plan is sustainable when the Feds need to balance them all plus pick a road map. Advice is nice, opinions not, no matter how solid they are from the office he ran!

        • The truth when it speaks to power. You can only hide from it for so long.

      • Oh puh-lease! What a bunch of non-sense!

        • Claudia so far your insight to this matter has been about as a mud puddle, with all the oh puh-lease, and your just “ignorant” comments. You provide not insight what so ever.

    • Surely not the biggest mistake. After all, the list is so long…

  11. Page had many fine points. Yet in my opinion he was a one issue man every time. Of course old age security was/is sustainable if it was the only responsibility the Feds have. It comes out of General revenue. That cash goes up and down. Be it health care or what ever each by it self is sustainable as long as the other areas do not ask for nor need a bigger slice of the pie. It is called balance and he had no clue that long term with a aging population other areas will also want more. He simply was a multi tasking hobbyists in a way. At the end fishing for another job.

  12. I agree with WALLHOUSEMART. The first time I saw Page on TV he came across as a person who would not go far given his demeanor. Compare the performance of the Auditor General at the time and there is a stark difference in how the message is presented and received. Page appeared (at least to me) to be very partisan rather than a person who is doing the job of presenting facts and putting them out there in a manner which be useful to the public to consider. Instead, he was not careful in picking the correct time to present the information and therefore appeared to be out to ‘get’ the government in power.

  13. Page could not separate financial from policy commentary. Appropriate for him to cost decisions, not appropriate for him to assess service level impacts. He made the decision to go beyond his mandate and into political questions and he knew what he was doing. He is primarily a political gent, people should realize that.

    • I haven’t learned much from this blog – except a better understanding of the Conservative Governments disease – it suffers with Narcissism. Look up the definition of Narcissism. According to the Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell recent book, we are into an epidemic of Narcissism – and this blog confirms it.

      • I think their actions are better described as arising from a conscious and severe mistrust of all things Ottawa, coupled with their need to exert extreme control upon becoming a gov’t for the first time (from which they have yet to exhale).

        Maybe that’s close to narcissism, but from a position of excessive mistrust, not self-love. I don’t think they sit there egotistically wondering why folks are upset at how fabulous they are. They know their failures and weaknesses. They have a different vision of how Ottawa should work and they don’t talk about that because doing so would slow them down.

        All that said, blog/forum comments on CAD politics are perfectly described by the word.

  14. Great. Even less reason to pay any attention to Page. He was a Liberal media whore while he was in office, and *shockingly* he gets hired by a former Liberal cabinet minister 4 months after leaving, presumably to continue being a Liberal media whore.

    He was never looking out for taxpayers, he was simply promoting himself from the day he got the job. The fact that a moron like Pat Martin says he’s the best friend of Canadian taxpayers (the same Pat Martin who goes to taxpayers to pay his libel suits) tells you that this guy had zero interest in protecting the Canadian taxpayer.

    But whatever, if he wants to go start some Liberal think tank, go for it. Wherry’ll be so busy lapping up his drivel that Wherry might at least stay away from the Big Boys and allow some real political coverage around here for a change.

  15. Pat Martin and Kevin Page are two rat faced whores of the same cloth.

  16. Is this a sliver of light in what appears to be a secretive, business rather than citizen oriented government? I hope so.

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