The parliamentary budget officers of the OECD are meeting in Ottawa this week. NDP MP Pat Martin, as chair of the government operations committee, gave a keynote address to the gathering last night. Here is the prepared text of that speech.
Great to be here with you today.
Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, and Freedom of information is the oxygen democracy breathes. These are two of my favorite cliché’s and they find their way into a lot of my speeches so I might as well get them out of the way right off the top.
I didn’t write either of those sayings…in fact I don’t know their origins…but they are truths that I have come to know and believe after 16 years in the trenches as a Member of Parliament.
Simply put, The public has a right to know what their government is doing with their money and secrecy is the natural enemy of good public administration…that simple message pretty well sums up my six terms in Parliament and I try to shout it from the roof tops every chance I get. In fact, I’m thinking of getting tattoo to that effect …and it may even make a fitting epitaph on my tombstone when I finally succumb to injuries sustained by banging my head against the brick wall of the vault, where our Government has been hoarding information.
It is the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish and for maladministration and abuse of power to occur in government, and while I agree with the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes that you can’t legislate morality or enforce ethical conduct, there’s no doubt in my mind that observation and scrutiny has the natural effect of elevating the standards of ethical behavior and of curbing maladministration or abuse. Again “Sunlight as disinfectant…”
Being forced to operate in the light of day lifts the performance and raises the bar of good public administration. Even if widespread corruption is not an issue, the seeds of corruption are planted in the dark. Openness and transparency leads to greater care, frugality, integrity, and honesty. Secrecy diminishes performance in all those categories.
And surely everyone who professes to care about the health and well being of our democracy would have to concede that Legislators and Parliamentarians of all people, must have proper access to all the facts and figures of proposed government spending, and a good understanding of those facts and figures, if they are to fulfill their primary role on behalf of their constituents of holding government to account and make informed decisions when voting to approve or deny government spending. Indeed, that “Freedom of information” is the oxygen democracy breathes…
As former Information Commissioner John Reid put it so well in a speech to the Fraser Institute in 2001,
“… all the checks and balances designed to limit abuses of government power are dependent upon there being free access by ‘outsiders’ to government’s ‘insider’ information. “
But that notion of “Government’s ‘insider’ information” speaks to the very root of the problem. The information doesn’t belong to the Government, or the bureaucracies or the public servants who create it!! It belongs to the people!!
Government information belongs to the citizens whose tax dollars paid for it…and whose vote gave the government permission to create it…and it shouldn’t be like pulling teeth to get it hold of it!
And surely Parliamentarians who are trying to get information out of the government so they can effectively do their jobs on behalf of the people who elected them, shouldn’t be treated as ‘outsiders’ trying to get our hands on “insider” information? Yet increasingly, that is the situation we find ourselves in.
Mr Reid went on to say that a government and a public service which holds tight to a culture of secrecy, is a government and a public service that is ripe for abuse. Yet too many of our senior public servants still subscribe to the views of Sir Humphrey in the British TV series “Yes Minister” when he advised his Prime Minister…
“You can have GOOD government, or you can have OPEN Government. But Prime Minister, you cannot have BOTH.”
So while some governments pay lip service to the notions of transparency and accountability to the point they have become almost meaningless buzzwords in this country, very few have shown any real commitment to open government beyond the bare minimum required to maintain the illusion. In the words of former Information Commissioner Denis Desautels,
“There is a reluctance to let Parliament and the public know how government programs are working because if things are going badly you may be giving your opponents the stick to beat you with. And even if the Minister is not personally concerned with this, senior public servants assume this fear on the Minister’s behalf. So the people who write Government performance reports seem to try to say as little as possible that would ever expose their department to any criticism.”
It’s frustrating and ironic that in the ‘age of information’, there has developed an increasingly elaborate and almost paranoid game of cat and mouse to keep important information from the prying eyes of the public.
In fact it’s been my experience in this country, that the amount of crowing about commitment to transparency and accountability has been directly proportional to the increased devotion to secrecy, deliberate obfuscation, and the hoarding of information for no defensible reason. Even incredibly, muzzling scientists and prohibiting them from sharing important research with the very taxpayers who paid for it.
It disturbs me that other countries represented here tonight are rapidly strengthening transparency and accountability in the age of information, and that my country is being left behind.
“The withholding of truth is falsehood in its most elementary form.” Jean-Francoise Revel .
There’s more than one way to withhold the truth. Our Parliamentary Budget Officer has met many times with the conventional straight up refusal to release information that most of us agree should have been readily available. He has had to fight like a pit bull on our behalf; even been forced to go to court for an interpretation of his mandate.
Our PBO has exposed shocking examples where the systematic and deliberate withholding of the truth has been tantamount to lying to the public about files as important as the war in Afghanistan, the true cost of the F-35 fighter jet which is the largest military procurement in the country’s history, and a landmark study on the appalling outcomes of education spending in remote First Nations communities. All of these fit into the old fashioned category of simply refusing to disclose information.
But another example where we need and value the services of an “Independent Financial Officer” is in the situation where there is “too much of a good thing”… when full disclosure of data can be just as useless as no disclosure.
A case in point may be the way our country deals with the Estimates…
There’s a joke about new MP’s that you spend the first year as a rookie marveling at how you managed to get elected…
And you spend the rest of the time wondering how on earth these other guys ever managed to get elected.
And I don’t say that to imply that my fellow MP’s are dumb….(altho in actual fact, some may well be).
I tell that joke to illustrate that we enjoy a very egalitarian democratic system in this country where we elect people from all walks of life. Good people, nice people, nurses, and school teachers, bus drivers and farmers. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In fact I think it is one of our greatest strengths as a nation that we have very strict spending limits in our electoral system to ensure ordinary working people can aspire to hold office and that people don’t get elected based on their deep pockets or fat check book.
The thing we need to consider however, is that those ordinary people (and I include myself in that number because I’m a journeyman carpenter by trade, not an accountant or economist) we ordinary people need some significant supports if we are going to be able to fulfill our most fundamental duty as Members of Parliament; holding Government to account and being the watchdog and gate keepers of the nations finances and the public purse.
We need quality, independent, non partisan, research at every step of the way if we are going to be able to make wise choices, and exercise good judgment , especially when called upon to vote on proposed spending which comes to us in the form of a massive tome of near incomprehensible gobbled gook called the Main Estimates.
I think Canadians would be horrified learn that Hundreds of Billions of dollars in proposed spending is approved by Members of Parliament each year with virtually no scrutiny or oversight or due diligence and how little time and attention is given to the Main Estimates in the financial cycle and business of supply of the Canadian government.
It’s a classic example of “too much of a good thing” and an example of how a data dump may meet the requirements of disclosure, but if it is in a format and a timeframe that makes it impossible for ordinary MP’s to assess and understand, it is of no value.
The estimates arrive in a binder the size of a Manhattan phone book and in a format that is almost impossible to understand by anyone other than a forensic accountant. (Most MP’s would require a Sherpa guide, four men of stout heart, and the blessing of the Almighty to mount an expedition required to comprehend these figures.) No one can deny the information has been presented as required but a massive dump of data is of no value to MP’s without interpretation and MP’s haven’t got a prayer of making sense of this material. I’m the chair of the committee and a six term veteran and I can barely figure it out.
The Committee gets a one hour meeting with the Minister to question him or her on billions of dollars in program spending before being required to vote on the estimates and report back to the House. And if we don’t get around to meeting with the, the estimates are “deemed” to have been adopted without comment or amendment or scrutiny or oversight or due diligence.
This is one of those examples when too much information in an inaccessible format is as bad as getting no information at all.
It’s a matter of debate whether this appalling system of approving the Estimates has evolved this way by design or simply by neglect, but the net result is that the Government gets a free pass and doesn’t have to explain or justify anything to anybody, much less the pesky representatives of the people.
This is a classic case where we desperately need the objective assistance of the PBO to help us follow the money. To help us understand the books before we vote on them…
“What is this spending hoping to achieve?”
“What is the real cost, the whole cost of the initiative?”
“What is that costing based on?”
“Is there a more cost effective way to accomplish the objectives?”
If MP’s can’t get answers to those basic questions, or can’t trust that the answers are based in reality and fact, how can we possibly cast our vote for or against the proposed spending?
Without an effective Parliamentary Budget Officer we can’t possibly do a thorough job of holding government to account through the estimates process. Our only hope in this regard, indeed the last thin line of defence of this ancient and fundamental principle that the Crown has to ask the permission of Parliament before they spend the people’s money, is the office of our Parliamentary Budget Officer. It’s the only place MP’s can turn to for independent, objective analysis and explanation of an overwhelming data dump of proposed spending.
Former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki once observed, ““There’s no question that it is easier to govern if the population is kept ignorant.”
But that tactic offends the fundamental principle of the public’s” right to know.” It is unworthy of a mature democracy and should offend the sensibilities of anyone who professes to be a democrat.
But we’ve found however, that more and stronger legislation does not seem to be the answer.
In 2006 Canada passed The Federal Accountability Act. It was a massive Bill amending some 50 pieces of legislation and formed the centre piece of the newly elected Conservative Government’s legislative agenda. In spite of professing to increase open government and accountability, Canada has actually slipped backwards down the scale of Transparency International and those requesting information report the situation has never been worse.
The fact is you can have the most robust freedom of information legislation in the world but unless there is a directive from the top that the default position to inquiries is to be openness and not secrecy, it will be of little to no use.
If inquiries and requests for information are viewed as a pesky nuisance or worse yet a threat, there will be continue to be a lack of cooperation, unreasonable delays, poor compliance, and hostility and antagonism towards requesters. A grudging resentful adherence to the letter of the law will never be enough to meet the spirit of openness.
In the words of Alexander Solzhenytsin,
“A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher, is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. When the tissue of life is woven only of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”
Well, there is nothing more noble than the pursuit of the truth…and the pursuit of the truth is the stock and trade of the people in this room. That’s why you have earned the trust and respect of the people in your home countries, that’s why your offices play a unique and valuable role in the democratic process.
And that is why I can say without hesitation or fear of contradiction, that our Canadian Parliamentary Budget Officer Mr Kevin Page, 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.
You won’t find a more honourable and decent man than Kevin Page and he has earned a very special place in the hearts of Canadians for having the courage to drill down and seek out the truth on their behalf in spite overwhelming adversity, inadequate tools and resources, and sometimes even open hostility towards him and his hard working crew by the government of the day.
In a way that I think is totally unworthy of our country, the federal government has seen fit to undermine the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer at every turn, and to vilify him for doing nothing more than putting into effect the lofty platitudes that they themselves expressed when his office was created in 2006.
It must have been terribly demoralizing for his office and staff when every time they managed to unearth information on behalf of Canadians, the Government has gone out its’ way to not just shoot the messenger, but also the horse he rode in on, and then to burn down his house for good measure.
Someone needs to tell our Conservative Government that the Truth doesn’t have a liberal bias. Nor is the Truth anything to fear unless you are up to no good, or your spending proposal is suspect or lacking. In either case, the public has a right to know the facts, and to pass judgment on your spending proposals and YOU for that matter, based on the truth, and the evidence, not the fantasy and fiction of political spin doctors.
No, I predict Our first Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Kevin Page will go down in history as a hero in the traditional sense of the word and remembered as a champion of the public’s “right to know”.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for Mr. Page and his small but dedicated staff.
It’s a tiny office with a tiny budget …They may be but a few but, by god, they ride like a hundred, and in terms of value for money to the Canadian taxpayer, it really has no peer.
So I want you to know Mr. Page, that when you leave your office next month, you can do so with your head held high and with the full and heartfelt appreciation of all my colleagues and the people of Canada, for a job well done in the service of your country.
Canadians know they had a friend and a champion in you Kevin Page, and a grateful country salutes you.
And I predict that the next government will build on what you started and this time give the Office the tools it needs to do its job properly, and this time to truly make manifest the spirit of open government, transparency and accountability.
Thank you for this opportunity to be with you here tonight to share my views and also to pay my respects, to Canada’s first and best Parliamentary Budget Officer in the last days of his tenure.