Kevin Page and the Afghanistan audit

How the PBO came to release a report in the middle of an election

by Aaron Wherry

One of the concerns raised by Philip Cross was the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s decision in the fall of 2008 to release, during that year’s election, an analysis of the costs of the war in Afghanistan. This has also come up in the comment thread under Paul’s column.

First, the context. Parliament was dissolved on September 7, 2008. Two days later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who had been planning to release an analysis of the mission that fall (at the request of NDP MP Paul Dewar), would not do so.

After six years of sending troops to Afghanistan, Canadians will go to the polls Oct. 14 not knowing how much the war has cost them. That’s because parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, Canada’s newest spending watchdog, has decided not to release a preliminary report into the first full costing of the war since Canada sent soldiers to Afghanistan six years ago in the middle of an election campaign … Mr. Page had hoped to release a preliminary estimate when Parliament returned in September, but the election shelved those plans. There’s nothing to stop Mr. Page from releasing the study, other than concerns of interfering in the election and getting drawn into politics.

A week later, Global National pursued the question. Here is how that report began.

KEVIN NEWMAN: Well, the prime minister sought to re-assure Canadians today that Canada’s economy is on more sound footing. Banks are secure and the government claims its finances are in the black. But tonight in a “Global National” exclusive, we raise an important question that is getting almost no coverage in this campaign, how much…

JAMIE ORCHARD (Reporter): In the entire Afghanistan debate, right now, and what will be spent before the mission runs out in 2011. This small team of number crunchers has the answer to that question. They work for Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, a new office created by the Tories to help tell Canadians what things cost. Their first job – tallying up the complete and true cost of the Afghan mission, and they’re almost ready, but the question – should it be released during an election campaign?

KEVIN PAGE (Parliamentary Budget Officer): At the minimum it would take an all-party agreement and probably we’d be setting a precedent for, in a kind of Canadian context for, you know, putting this report out.

In short order, the Liberal, NDP and Bloc leaders declared that the report should be made public. A day later, the Prime Minister added his agreement.

“We’re always willing to give content for any information that’s public. We put out detailed estimates every year of, of government expenditures so, of course, we’re willing to give our consent.”

Mr. Page then agreed that the report would be released as soon as it was ready and it was publicly released on October 9.

Mr. Page’s mandate was subsequently the subject of some gnashing of teeth. I can’t find the original source of the quote, but Cross says a former parliamentary librarian said the release of the report called into question the non-partisan status of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

For the sake of exploring this particular moment in this history of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, I asked Kevin Page about it: Do you regret releasing the Afghanistan report during the 2008 election?

He wrote back with the following, which I reprint in its entirety.

The decision to release the PBO report on the cost of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan during the 2008 election period was one of the decisions in professional life when you say this is going to hurt either way, so what is the best thing to do.

What is often forgotten when people recount the story is that all political leaders in the 2008 election campaign said PBO should release the study.

Did I set up (or pressure) the agreement or go ahead signal from of all party leaders to release the PBO report by publicly saying I would “not” release the report without agreement from each party leader?

If I did so, it was inadvertent. We did not want to release the report for multiple reasons. It should also be noted that at the time the report was still in production phase for planned release after Parliament returned.

This set up a lose – lose (game theory) situation. Release the report during the election – risk being perceived as partisian. Do not release the report – risk being perceived as partisan (plus not transparent).

A few years ago there was a book I liked with the title “When Markets Collide”. This was a situation of “When Principles Collide” . In the end, with all party leaders saying release the report, we released the report based on the promotion of transparency for Canadians.

The report, of course, like all PBO reports is not political in nature. There are no critiques of political priorities or policies. In PBO reports there are methodologies, assumptions and range of estimates, all subject to peer review and then public release.

We released the report very similar to budget lock up process. No advanced copies for anyone. A lock up before release. One open briefing session only (then we were gone).

Were there important political issues that could flow from the report … that stem from financial analysis? Yes. What kind of military did we want after the war (much capital would be depreciated)? Did we set aside enough money to address death and disability for the young Canadians that served?

In retrospect, did we have this more political conversation. No, not really. There was a debate about transparency that would carry on.

The 2009 Joint Committee Report of the Library of Parliament included one recommendation that I supported. It was a protocol that stated that PBO should not release a report during an election period.

I have argued that the legislation undepinning PBO needs to be renewed – appointment, independence, mandate, transparency, and power of direct request. Under transparency, the issue of product release could be strengthened to promote both the principle of transparency (PBO releases all its reports to the public) with a clause that PBO does not issue reports during an election period.

On a separate issue (but related), one could also envisage a parliamentary debate about whether an independent fiscal institution should be asked to cost party platform commitments (the Australian model).

Do I have regrets? Yes and no.

I did not like the situation (is this a regret?) — the pressure of releasing a first (and also major) report of an independent fiscal institution during an election campaign with the pressure of having all party leaders saying to release the report

I was very proud of the quality of the work of the PBO report prepared by three extraordinary public servants and felt given the situation we did our very best to release the report in a professional and non-partisan way (no advanced copies; no political commentary; just the numbers).

In the end, I am accountable for the decision to release.




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Kevin Page and the Afghanistan audit

  1. These would be my questions to Mr.Page: if at the time of reporting by J.Orchard, it was said that the PBO report on Afghanistan was not ready yet, why then would Mr.Page not have reiterated as such, namely that the report was not yet ready. Thereby all pressure in regards to releasing the documents during an election could have been avoided, for the document would not have been ready during that time. Was the finishing of the report hurried in order to release it during the election campaign?

    Futhermore, Mr.Page states that “I was very proud of the quality of the work of the PBO report
    prepared by three extraordinary public servants and felt given the
    situation we did our very best to release the report in a professional
    and non-partisan way (no advanced copies; no political commentary; just
    the numbers).”

    But he must also remember that the disagreement between the PBO and the government upon the release of the document was based on the fact that the numbers used in the PBO report must be considered as fixed cost regardless whether engaged in war or not. Therefore the difference between the 18 mil as calculated by the PBO and the 8 mil as projected within the government numbers. Different approaches were taken.

    It may therefore be correct to say that the government also agreed to the release of the document during election time, but had the PBO insisted that the report was not ready, and had the PBO used the same approach of exclusion as had the government done within its tabulations of cost, then there would have been no upheaval at all.

    We must keep all of those facts in mind. Mr.Page cannot simply state some of the facts and leave other facts out. It is always best to tell the whole story and find meaning in it all.

    • Hmmm…sort of like Harper and Flaherty; the PBO should tell only what we spent, not what was saved by dropping civil servants etc. etc. you are too partisan, mr. Verhoeven.

      • And you are right off topic, child Emily Madsen. If you choose to comment on my posting, please do so with something of substance.

        May I suggest, once again, for you to go and converse with EmilyOne. The two of you together could have a blast. Enjoy!

    • You forget that The PBO did not bring up the timing of the release, the media did. Page responded under pressure. The leaders all agreed it should be released and the PBO did not release a premature report. Everything in an election is political, but so is government spending. All I want from the PBO are unvarnished data. I can get ladles of spin and lacquer from the parties.

      How would you deal with fixed versus variable costs without to and fro-ing between the PBO and vested interests? That discussion comes after the release and it isn’t as though the PBO hid their rationale or methods. Ditto F-35. It is in the governments interest to present minimal estimates and there are multiple accountancy methods. As long as the method used is disclosed (and, hence, assumptions), all is legitimate and comparisons can be made.

      Seems to me Page not only took his duty seriously, he set the standard for independence and transparency. He’ll be missed and I’d bet his replacement is far more likely to stay inside the PMOs lines.

      • “You forget that The PBO did not bring up the timing of the release, the media did.”

        Mmmmm……now where would the media find information in regards to PBO report releases?

        • Perhaps in the publically available information that the PBO routinely releases (and has done from the start)? But conspiracy theory is so much more fun.

          • So you believe that a PBO calls the media to say that a report is not yet ready. Interesting thought. And you suspect me of holding conspiracy theories???

          • Err, no. The information of PBO activities is routinely posted on their website, is communicated in response to queries from the House, etc. When asked, the PBO responds. I would hazard a guess that that is their obligation. Perhaps you’d prefer the PBO to remain silent as is the wont of the PMO? I’d guess that’s what will happen in future, more to the publics loss.

          • Don’t put words in my mouth: I do not prefer the PBO to remain silent.

            My initial post asked the question if it would have been possible for Page to have reiterated that the report was not finished. The media would not have pressed on, or would they? In case the media would have pressed on in any case, then the media should answer some questions in regards to putting pressure on Page.
            Read my initial posting and you will understand my point made.

          • He pushed back on the media request but then was caught in the trap of being suspected of holding back on information. As he said, it was lose-lose. You are simply picking on him for being in such a situation that he couldn’t win. He did what he thought right – by deferring to the party leaders.

          • How could he have been caught in a trap if he had reiterated that the report was not yet ready?

          • Because he didn’t wish to lie? Since the report was released shortly thereafter, it clearly would have been misleading to say it was not ready. Page seems to cherish both duty and integrity.

      • “Page responded under pressure.”

        Well, being under pressure is part of the job when being in such positions. The salary reflects that inclusively.

        He could not handle the pressure.

        • That’s your opinion, facts and track record indicate otherwise. Damn those facts.

          • Actually, no: it was YOUR opinion to say that Page responded under pressure.

            It was my opinion to say that he could not handle the pressure. Both opinions may or may not be valid.

            For the record: your opinions are no more facts than are mine. For you to believe that your opinions are facts but mine aren’t is just selective thinking at best.

          • Did you read Aaron’s column?

          • I read Aaron’s column twice. But I don’t think you’ve read my initial posting in response to Aaron’s column because there is nothing within your replies to me which would indicate that. Read my initial response again and read what it says.

          • You really ought to go the road with this show. You’re the mistress of the circular argument.

  2. Certain people seem to be confusing their opinion of what the PBO should do with its public mandate -which can be found here: http://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/en/ABOUT

    Transparency was one of the mandates when the Office was set up. This inherent property of the PBO is also a strong defender, as it turns out, against cries of partisanship from the expected quarters.

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