Do we need a PBO? -

Do we need a PBO?

Donald Savoie on how to fix Parliament


While reporting this piece on Kevin Page and the future of the PBO, I spoke with Donald Savoie, the scholar and author of various books on governance in Canada. Our conversation didn’t really make it into the piece (there are probably 100,000 words to be written about the office of the parliamentary budget officer and the nature of parliamentary democracy and governance, but we only had room for about 1,300 in the magazine), so here is a condensed and edited transcript.

I know you have a general concern about the proliferation of officers of parliament. I read the passage that you have on Kevin Page’s term in your latest book. Do you think he conducted himself poorly in that job?

First of all, I didn’t think we needed an officer of parliament to review the budget. We already had, depending on how you count, 11, 12 or 13 [officers of parliament]. We’re now up to 13 or 14. Adding another one, I thought, was not the right way: a) because it’s very costly, b) it generates a lot of bureaucratic work, paper-shuffling, in Ottawa … So I have a problem with setting up another officer of parliament. But in the case of the office of the parliamentary budget officer, that office, rather than help Parliament do its job, rather than help the opposition understand the estimates, rather than help all members of Parliament understand the budget process, rather than do some specific studies on behalf of Parliament and MPs, what it did was cater to the media. You can argue, and rightly so, that it probably helped the media do its job, but it didn’t help Parliament to do its job. In fact, a number of MPs on both sides, not just the Tories, not just the government side, including Carolyn Bennett, had some issues that he kind of went native and took off with his own set of priorities and decided to play to the media and not Parliament. It should have been the other way around. That’s my main criticism of that office.

Is that just in the sense that he was such a public persona? Was that in the things he chose to study? 

I think he attached a lot of importance to having a public persona. I think he attached a lot of importance to speaking to the media rather than speak to Parliament and MPs. I mean, do you know the name of the Congressional Budget Officer in the United States, who has a much larger mandate because Congress plays a much larger role in shaping the budget? You don’t know the name of the budget officer of Congress, I don’t, he plays to Congress, he doesn’t play to the media … So the persona, he chose the issues to give persona, but he played to media, not to Parliament.

Page has raised this issue himself, that the House of Commons doesn’t have the ability to hold the power of the purse, doesn’t have the ability to hold the government to account, that the estimates process is too complicated. I think he’s referred to it as a playing field where the executive has all the information and Parliament doesn’t have any. Do you put any stock in there being a parliamentary budget officer or do you think that the stuff that the parliamentary budget officer does should be done by somebody else?

The first point is absolutely right, it’s not a level playing field and Parliament has lost its way. Its lost its way mainly in holding the government to account, lost its way mainly in the budget process and the estimates, because that’s one of Parliament’s major functions. The solution is not to create an officer of Parliament and for Parliament to give him the steering wheel and say, okay, now you drive. That’s not the solution. The solution is to fix Parliament. So you fix Parliament how? Well, you fix Parliament through political parties. I would have much preferred to beef up political parties, the policy and research capacity of political parties, than creating yet another officer of Parliament.

Is it just that setting up another officer of Parliament seems purer than giving more resources to the leader of the opposition or the third party? Does it make everyone feel better to have an officer there than to do it your way?

It doesn’t make me feel any better because it speaks to the level of cynicism. We don’t trust the people that we elect to Parliament. We don’t trust the leader of the opposition to do sound policy work. And that cynicism inhibits political parties to do their proper work. And so, because of that, if you’re in the opposition, you say, well, doesn’t it make sense to create another officer of Parliament? Which is what the Tories did. They were in opposition. I don’t think they would come to the same conclusion now. But it speaks to the level of cynicism. We don’t trust political parties. We don’t trust MPs. We don’t trust the leader of the opposition. They’re too partisan, they’re too un-pure. I don’t think an officer of Parliament is any purer. He’s a bureaucrat and accountable to no one. Accountable to God and maybe the media. Whereas the leader of the opposition and the MPs are accountable to us.

Do you think there was anything redeeming about the Kevin Page era?

Well, you would have to start with the premise it was a good idea to set up the parliamentary budget officer and I don’t start with that premise. I wouldn’t have created that office.

Do you see anything positive in him setting what he’s described as an institute of fiscal studies at the University of Ottawa that would deal with public policy and better informing the political debate?

Well, we don’t have a shortage of policy institutes in Canada. We have an oversupply of them, actually. And we’re not going to fix our democratic institutions by setting up more research institutes. We’re going to fix our democratic institutions by fixing the institutions themselves. I would much prefer to invest in Parliament and the work of MPs. There’s a new group, Samara, I have much more faith that they will help our parliamentary institutions than yet another research institute.

So your argument would be that there should be more resources with political parties. Would you extend that to more independence for committees and more independence for individual MPs?

Absolutely. And forcing political parties, not to give the steering wheel over to the officers of Parliament and say, you drive, forcing Parliament, MPs and political parties to do some serious policy work. And that’s what political parties ought to be doing. And so if they’re accountable to us, officers of Parliament and research institutes of one kind or another are accountable to no one.

Talking to Page, his argument is we need more information, we need more data points, we need to have debates informed by data, information and analysis that we can look at the options and then debate them on a ground of data. Is it just a matter of where that should all be coming from? Is it just a matter of whether or not that’s coming from a PBO or whether that’s coming from parliamentarians?

I think we do that by opening up the work of Treasury Board and Finance, make it much more transparent. And then forcing the hands of Parliament, MPs, parties to do that work. You tell Parliament, MPs and political parties, heal thyself before you heal anybody else. That’s what we’ve got to fix.

I’m not sure I entirely share the general concern about Mr. Page’s public persona during his time as the parliamentary budget officer. There is an argument to be made that the next PBO might handle himself differently, but I’m also tempted to argue that other officers of Parliament should be more open in explaining themselves and their work. In our interview last March, Mr. Page addressed the general concern about his profile.

In a follow-up email I asked Mr. Savoie whether we might aspire to have both a parliamentary budget officer and a Parliament that is empowered in its own right and he agreed. The debate then becomes about how the PBO should function within that context. I tend to think we do need a PBO, especially until we have created that kind of Parliament, though hoping that the existence of a PBO isn’t seen as a solution.


Do we need a PBO?

  1. There is already enough people in our government in the pocket of big business. Having one in the pocket of the Canadian people is a must and anyone against having a PBO is against Canadians having a voice in their own government.

    • Yep, and no options on the ballot to change it, as if the ballot itself only has statism more government and more taxes. No wonder so many don’t vote, the game is rigged and parliament is just a stage show. We have no say, just pay your taxes now.

    • If you believe that, I have some swamp land in Florida. The PBO is now tied to the OECD as their Network of Parliamentary Budget Officials now meets under their auspices, shares data with each other and adopts OECD practices for budgeting. I don’t know about you but I have a great deal of difficulty knowing that the Head of the Congressional Budget Office is informed about our budgets. The OECD is no longer non-partisan, it pushes everything the UN does as does the IMF. Top of their agenda is to ensure that each country spends enough on climate change, social justice, and every other UN program that’s out there. Then national interests can be looked at.

  2. Savoie makes the exact correct point. Page destroyed the office by playing to the media, with his endless self promotion.

    The head of the CBO is basically anonymous, and hardly ever speaks to the media. The CBO lets their numbers to the talking.

    • Not really. Governemtn secrecy is the enemy. By exposing stuff he got attention to ongoing problems no one wanted to fix.

      We need more Kevins in government, not less. Fact is we don’t even have lobbyists declarations, open reporting and the like. CF can lose billions and no one cares.

      Pretty obvious management in Ottawa is out of control with their hands in our pockets. 99% of politicians only know one answer, more of other peoples money, our money.

      • That’s just the anti-Harper spin on things. I’m sure if a Liberal government had been in power, Page would not be speaking truth to it. He would be in total agreement with all their budget numbers. And this is the point. If Page had been truly non partisan, things would not have turned so sour. He was suppose to report to Parliament but he went running off to the press at every opportunity.

  3. Kevin did more than most, but with one good man standing up against so many wanting same old hide the corruption and waste, he was trying to swim up Niagara falls was more plausible. And comparing us to USA is hugely flawed as on thing the Republican system does is separation of duties, the leader runs the country and an independent congress does the rules and audits. That is, legislation is separate from administration. In Canada they are one and the same.

    As for trust of the people we elect, show me how they deserve this trust? All I trust of them is that they will make big efforts to decieve us out of our money in the ruse of big governemtn knows best. Not one party represents the non-government working middle class as all they do is bicker about how to spend more of our wealth on a growing list of useless things we don’t benefit from.

    None of the parties do what they say they will do. Be be it Harper’s “Trust” lie, Liberal GST elimination lie, or NDP that only have a spend agenda with no tangible way to pay for the pandering other than more taxes and more debt to appease the dysfunctional whiners for a vote. Hey, Mulroney scandal got Liberals to buy the Air Caanda Airbus anyway, with NDP Air Canada union support, Liberals even gave $2.1M to Mulroney in the end. They all work over the productive Canadian middle class taxpayer for lobby money. Why should be like or trust them?

    And governemtn loves its secrecy, as to hide the huge amount of corruption waste….even RCMP are being very quiet these days on the missing SNC $56 million….as do we believe the corruption was limited to Libya? Hahaha…I can’t prove it but bet it is not limited to Libya.

    Ottawa spends $280+ billion a year and we have little to show for it but bankers bonuses, buddy auto bailouts, defective US F35 subsidies, rusty subs, fake lakes, G20 parties of head bashing, union pension padding and a lot of waste. We don’t even jail white collar fraudsters.

  4. And forcing political parties, not to give the steering wheel over to the officers of Parliament and say, you drive, forcing Parliament, MPs and political parties to do some serious policy work. And that’s what political parties ought to be doing. And so if they’re accountable to us, officers of Parliament and research institutes of one kind or another are accountable to no one.

    Savoie is living in a fantasy world if he thinks that is even possible. Politicians doing “serious policy work”? It’s like asking a real estate agent if buying a luxury condo in Toronto now is a good investment.

    After the disgraceful tenure of Christiane Ouimet, the former Public Sector Integrity Commissioner who resigned 4 years early (with a $500K severance package) after an audit by the Auditor General; or the abhorrent behavior of Shirish Chotalia as head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, I am of the opinion that Kevin Page did an outstanding job.

    We need more courageous officers like Page, a true public servant in every sense who held himself accountable only to the people of Canada.

  5. I have not changed my opinion that his job was to identify the assumptions that went with govt estimates for transparency, and to provide cost scenarios if one wanted different parameters. Could comment on importance of different parameters and what it means to include or exclude. Let commentators or MPs or cabinet cttees or Parties choose whether there is a story in that or not. This would have achieved what was needed in creating transparecy and exposing vulnerabilites and issues in costing, but protected office from accusations it wasn’t neutral or apolitical. Where he politicized himself was insisting publicly that he was right and govt wrong, and further, doing it in poorly timed press conferences. No question that this politicized the office.

    • Exactly! Notice how the press immediately started calling him the “Budget Watchdog”, as if it was his job to say what a proper budget was supposed to look like? He operated completely outside of his mandate and was simply trying to garner as much media attention as he could before high-tailing it to a lucrative private sector gig.

  6. Honestly, it would be nice if some funds would have been allocated into updating the outdated legacy IT systems, hiring permanent IT people (rather than the fly by night consultants who build custom made systems for government without speaking to employees or citizens and clients. Then, they charge 20 times as much as an employee and provide no support and the systems aren’t interoperable within a department).

    Secondly, giving the employees the tools and the training to produce the data in the format that is the easiest for Parliamentarians and Canadians to understand. And allowing employees to do so. Go ahead, google Canada School of Public Service and look at the cost of the courses and then, ask yourself what level of employee is receiving all the training dollars?

    Thirdly, people should recognize that in the end, its department employees that have to put aside delivering front line services to citizens to ‘feed the beast’. This means more and more spent on writing reports and oversight – much of which is not made public, even though it belongs to Canadians. Meanwhile citizens cannot go into a tax centre to ask a question or even personally deliver their tax return and receive a receipt confirming the government has ‘received’ it. People cannot go into a centre for face to face service to have their employment insurance forms processed in many centres (and more will be shut down).

    When are people going to demand that their elected representatives do more than photo ops and hand out ‘cheques’ (new spending? old spending? Who knows?) every week across the country? When are people going to demand actual services in return for their tax dollars instead of a pile of reports that nobody reads or acts on? People are so busy fixating on partisanship instead of the amount of time they are spending sitting on hold and their lack of access to services. Where are all the public servants? Most of them are writing reports, letters that ministerial staff used to write (like thank yous) or rebooting their computers for the 20th time today because the legacy ‘ custom made’ system is incompatible with the no longer supported software. (Some people are still on MAIN FRAMES. Its only been a little over 10 years since steno pools went and personal computers were obtained in other departments.)